Not Everything is About Democracy

With the anniversary of June 4th now passed, relatively without incident, I was hoping to move on to other topics, but I came across this op-ed piece in the New York Times and, well, here we are.

In it, Nicholas Kristof (the Times’s Beijing Bureau Chief in 1989) recounts his experiences in Beijing on the night of the third/morning of the fourth. He describes being crowded in with a group of students, separated from oncoming soldiers by an open field of wounded who no one was willing to run out and help, until this happened (emphasis added):

Troops had already opened fire on an ambulance that had tried to collect the injured, so other ambulances kept their distance. Finally, some unlikely saviors emerged — the rickshaw drivers.

These were peasants and workers who made a living pedaling bicycle rickshaws, carrying passengers or freight around Beijing. It was those rickshaw drivers who slowly pedaled out toward the troops to collect the bodies of the dead and injured. Then they raced back to us, legs straining furiously, rushing toward the nearest hospital.

One stocky rickshaw driver had tears streaming down his cheeks as he drove past me to display a badly wounded student so that I could photograph or recount the incident. That driver perhaps couldn’t have defined democracy, but he had risked his life to try to advance it.

Really? I suspect if you asked him, he would have said he risked his life to save a student, an injured fellow citizen, someone’s brother and someone’s son. Not everything is about democracy.

It sometimes astounds me the extent to which Westerners want to frame the entire event as pro-democracy, anti-communist protests when, at best, demands for democracy were vague and only one of a long list of things students listed among demands. Later in the piece, Kristof backtracks a bit, saying “many of those rickshaw drivers and bus drivers and others in 1989 were demanding not precisely a parliamentary democracy, but a better life — and they got it,” and he’s not wrong. I still remember being shocked the first time I saw Wang Dan Wuer Kaixi list “Nike shoes” among the student demands during an interview in the excellent documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace*. And he listed it before democracy!

I have no interest in arguing that demands for democracy weren’t a part of the protests at Tiananmen; they were. Still, it seems a bit hypocritical for Westerners to demand an open, honest dialogue about the events of 1989 from China when so many of us are, at the same time, only willing to look at the event through democracy-colored glasses.

Now, of course I don’t know what the heroic rickshaw driver Kristof mentioned was really thinking. It’s possible, I suppose, that he was striking a blow for democracy. Personally, I prefer to assume that he wasn’t. In a way, his actions are more admirable. In the midst of a chaotic and life-threatening situation, he did what was right. Not for democracy, and not for communism, but for humanity.

Open, honest dialogue about Tiananmen can help China, I think, and can help the world understand China better. But if we’re not open or we’re not honest — and it seems pretty clear from his later backtracking that Kristof knows that rickshaw driver’s actions had nothing to do with democracy — all we can do is contribute to the growing perception that the West holds a grudge against China, and is using lies and distortions to tear it down.

Not everything is about democracy, nor is China inevitably on a course that leads directly to Western-style democracy, as Kristof implies in the end of his article:

When you educate citizens and create a middle class, you nurture aspirations for political participation. In that sense, China is following the same path as Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s.

In Taiwan in 1986, an ambitious young official named Ma Ying-jeou used to tell me that robust Western-style democracy might not be fully suited for the people of Taiwan. He revised his view and now is the island’s democratically elected president.

Some of my friends are Communist Party officials, and they are biding their time. We outsiders also may as well be similarly pragmatic and patient, for there’s not much we can do to accelerate this process. And as we wait, we can be inspired by those rickshaw drivers of 20 years ago.

We can indeed be inspired by the story of the rickshaw drivers, but let’s be inspired by their courage in standing up for what’s right, for their courage in helping others, instead of inventing other motivations for their actions.

*Unfortunately, I don’t currently have a copy of the movie, so I can’t 100% confirm it was him who said that, but it was certainly one of the student leaders.

UPDATE: It wasn’t Wang Dan, but Wuer Kaixi (thanks to commenter “A Chinese”). On a related note, our spam filter here at ChinaGeeks has gotten a bit trigger happy recently, so if you post a comment but don’t see it appear, shoot me an email and I’ll dig it out of the spam box. Either that, or try posting your comment again with fewer links and/or no address set as your homepage. Also, does anyone know where one can find/purchase The Gate of Heavenly Peace?

0 thoughts on “Not Everything is About Democracy”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. I can’t agree more with your idea.Same mistake as the American instructor made in my uni.

    Even now,we’re just asking for the truth on June Fourth.1989 rather than the democracy.Compared to the “grudge”,which is worse,I can’t decide.


  3. Although you make a point about the rickshaw drivers, I do agree with Kristof that China probably will inevitably be forced to democratize, or at least loosen it’s political controls and improve human rights to a comparable level with the west. This was actually something I had suggested to some of my peers here in Tangshan a while back, and although they had nothing to say about it at the time, the fact that I recently saw a self-proclaimed extremely patriotic Chinese, who believes that the government response to the protest was appropriate, saying the same thing in an interview on the Peking Duck bolstered my confidence in that idea. Although it absolutely isn’t certain or inevitable, the increased freedoms we experience today are a result of education and tools like the internet. However, I am still skeptical of Kristof’s saying that he has friends who are biding their time. Perhaps they simply aren’t in positions of appropriate power, but the clear message that I’ve taken away from party officials is that they’ll do absolutely anything to maintain their stranglehold on it.


  4. The Chinese Government may have done the right thing at that time (to end the protests and demonstrations) for the sake of stability and a better bigger picture, but they did NOT do it the RIGHT WAY, sending armed PLA troops and tanks to annihilate the protesters (at least for the kind of heavy equipment they brought to the square that is what it seems).


  5. Fantastic post, Custer. Spot on with the democracy-colored lenses and keep ducking those straw men that have and will be flung at you (be careful of the semantics arguments though). Tiananmen has been overladen with political baggage, and too often it is presented with so much ideology that the inherent humanity of what happened is relegated to the back seat. Such treatment disrespects what the movement was and the participants of that movement.

    That said, I wonder if Kristof genuinely and personally thinks the rickshaw driver did what he in some effort to “advance democracy”, or if he just let his artistic license to write a dramatic narrative get ahead of himself.


  6. The person said he wanted Nike shoes in Gate of Heavenly Peace was Wuer Kaixi,I just watched that documentary again. And I have to admit, after watching it, I admire Liang Xiaoyan much more than these students leaders.

    Also, this article on financial times by James Kynge is probably a better one

    This is especially true when I read the following at the end
    “The effectiveness of this narrative can be gauged by the fact that Chinese people are generally more suspicious of foreigners now than they were in 1989, even though the country’s economic transformation since then has derived mainly from its interaction with the outside world.

    Most of the time the rancour that broods within these two divergent narratives is disguised – until events, such as the riots in Tibet last year, bring it surging forth, reminding us how far apart we are. “


  7. Couldn’t agree more.
    I was talking to a man the other night, who participated in the 6-4 protests and even got detained for a week or so.
    When asked about it he said this: “We weren’t really wrong in our demands but it was all premature and the laobaixing weren’t with us. Many things have already been achieved since then and If it wasn’t for our actions, maybe the progress would have been even greater”. His words.
    He generally seemed to reflect on the whole event as something a bit foolish he has done when he was young and didn’t know better.

    It’s not for me to say whether he’s right or wrong, but isn’t his point of view just as valid as that of the “disidents” who’re being interviewd all over the place? I’m sure many share his view, yet it’s something you’d never read about anywhere.


  8. A very good post.

    But that, Mr. Custer, is why your blog will probably be ignored by the western media. Because it’s just so politically incorrect to say TAM was not mainly about democracy and the majority in the West will not like it.


  9. Josh,

    No offense, China will not use West standard to judge what they do. With the current financial crisis, lot of chinese in China have already started to question west concept of “freedom”.

    Every party will try everything they can to keep their power, there is nothing to be surprised about it. De Gaulle almost opened fire on students in 1968 if Student had kept protesting.


  10. Wahaha,

    I didn’t mean that the Chinese government would get out a measuring stick or do a column by column analysis of the differences between Chinese and western freedoms. I meant the eventuality would probably be just that. And I’m not sure what the economic crisis has to do with personal freedoms. If anything, I’d say the Patriot Act is a particularly shameful example of government infringement on politically guaranteed freedoms.

    One thing that’s interesting to note in continued discussion of Chinese politics is how loosely the term “western” (which I am also guilty of) is applied. Because apparently, anything besides mainland China, Vietnam, and North Korea is “western.”


  11. I don’t think Kristof or any decent journalist today claims that TAM was about anti-communism or pro-Western democracy. I honestly think you are projecting your own belief that this is what journalists like Kristof do. Some of them certainly did so at the time, 20 years ago. The reason the rickshaw drivers were there in the first place was to support the movement, even if he may not have been able to define it to our satisfaction. But like many in China at the time, they knew – just about everyone knew – that something was wildly off keel in terms of corruption and unfairness. That is why the rickshaw drivers and so many other people in Beijing and from out of the city congregated there, that is why local restaurants made food for the students, why police officers and even soldiers joined them (before the big day). They were there because something was wrong and they were unhappy about it and the students gave them hope. They were not there to help pick up students who were shot, although that is what they ended up doing.


  12. @ Richard, yes, I don’t dispute that at least many of the rickshaw drivers were probably there to show support, but that really isn’t the same thing as ‘striking a blow for democracy’. Remember, by the time TAM actually occurred, martial law had been declared and the army had been advancing for a couple days; there were plenty of people who came out for the express purpose of protecting the students, or for protesting the invasion of Beijing in the first place. That’s a form of supporting the movement, sure, but don’t you think characterizing it as “trying to advance democracy” is misleading?

    It might be a small distinction, but it’s an important one, because the way Kristof has this piece written is going to leave lots of Americans who know nothing about TAM or China (except what they read in the news at the time) thinking that even rickshaw drivers want the Chinese government to become the American one (that’s what American readers will think of when they read “democracy”), when that simply isn’t true. But if people think that all Chinese people want democracy and it’s just the CCP holding them back — many people do think that — that’s a serious misunderstanding and it prevents further understanding in a bunch of areas.

    And I’m sure Kristof and other respectable journalists wouldn’t actually outright say TAM was about western-democracy; however, we can see from this piece that he’s willing to imply it pretty strongly, and plenty of other journalists are too. Why? Because that’s the narrative about TAM that sells in the West. As I said in the post, Kristof does clarify later in the piece, so he’s got the best of both worlds really: a sexy pro-democracy protest lead, and then the more complex truth later.


  13. Pro-China folks here:

    Some people are not happy about the use of the word “Western”. May I suggest that we use all use this: Human Rights Fundamentalists/Relgionists/Fanatics.

    Human Rights activists – a bunch of ‘fanatics’?

    The following are extracts of Attorney General Walter Woon’s speech at a Law Society gathering last Thursday where he touched on the topic of human rights. The event was to mark the launch of the Law Society’s Public and International Law Committee.

    The extracts are culled from reports by the Straits Times and TODAY.

    Human rights has become a ‘religion’ that breeds devotees who border on the fanatic.


    It would be ‘hypocrisy’ for such people to decide what is acceptable for the rest of society.


    We have to be careful when we talk about public law, and not to confuse law with politics. There are many people who think if a decision is made and they don’t like it, then this is something the law can correct. There is a line between a political decision and a legal decision.


    You have, like in some religions, the fanatics. And it’s all hypocrisy and fanaticism (for these people) to set the views, as the leading spokesmen, of what is acceptable and what’s not.


    What we are against is the assumption of some people that when they define what’s human rights, that decision is the decision of the rest of humanity.


  14. I had the same feeling Custer did about Kristof’s liberal and entirely overly idealistic use of democracy in the piece, but at least he qualified it somewhat by stating that the students weren’t actually asking for “parliamentary democracy”. The problem is that Kristof apparently thinks that “selfless heroism” is something that is inherently “democratic”…which is obviously ridiculous (and unfortunately draws the attention of all democracy-hating trolls everywhere).

    However, the thing that really annoyed me was his invocation of Ma Ying-jeou as a representative of “democratic spirit”, when the man is a well-known sycophant who used to sell out his Taiwanese countrymen to the KMT for “thought crimes” committed while studying at Harvard, and is now in the process of selling out the entire nation to China.


  15. I personally find this article mildly stupid.

    The whole ‘westerners who “know China” berate other Westerners for being “anti-China”‘ genre of blog posts is a bit naff – just in my humble opinion.

    You’re so sure the rickshaw driver did not do what he did “for democracy”?

    Then I guess Sun Yat-sen’s overthrow of the Qing, the 1911 revolution, the May 4th movement, etc. were also not about ‘democracy’ – despite constantly harping on about it.

    What the rickshaw driver did was to take a stand for the individual and against authority, and when confronting authority turned evil, such a stand comes very close to being a stand for democracy. One can split hairs, but is it that important?

    The rickshaw driver didn’t opt for the Zhang Yimou option, a la “Hero” and all his other crappola movies. . .

    I imagine the Zhang Yimou response would have been something along the lines of suddenly realizing (perhaps after lounging around with a cup of tea viewing an especially fetching piece of calligraphy): “Gosh! The leaders MUST massacre the people to restore ‘order’, yet the poor leaders inwardly weep for the nation as they order the slaughter”. Now cut to beautifully choreographed scene of 10 thousand rickshaw drivers, silk billowing behind them as they glide out of the city with the dead, then weeping as they shovel earth into the mass graves of their unfortunate brother Han. Cut again to individual rickshaw driver staring up at a cloud formation that somehow resembles “天下” in grass script.
    He’s only a bumpkin, and can barely make out the words, but he understands their significance. Authority is to be obeyed – motherfucker!

    By Christ. . . gripping stuff, and so uniquely Chinese.

    As a westerner it’s so tough for me to understand.

    Jesus. . . wish I’d spent a few months in China learning Chinese and stuff. . . then I’d know more about this shit.


  16. “What the rickshaw driver did was to take a stand for the individual and against authority, and when confronting authority turned evil, such a stand comes very close to being a stand for democracy. One can split hairs, but is it that important?”

    With whatever respect is due here, YES THAT IS IMPORTANT. First of all, what you’re arguing is that when an individual stands up against evil authority, that’s roughly equivalent to standing up for democracy. No, it isn’t. You might argue that it’s within the ‘democratic spirit’ or something, but democracy is a system of government.

    The problem here, as always, is defining “democracy”. If you just define “democracy” as ‘people over authority’, then yes, many, many things can be called ‘taking a stand for democracy’. Perhaps the riskshaw driver was fighting for democracy in this way.

    However, Kristof’s piece was written for an American audience who, by and large, read ‘democracy’ as meaning ‘the system of government practiced in the US’. As inaccurate as that might be, that’s how most Americans are going to read that word, and Kristof knows that as well as you and I do.

    Now, do you really think that’s why that rickshaw driver was taking injured students to the hospital that night? If so, by all means explain, but if not, don’t you think that’s an important distinction to make, especially when explaining China to a group of people that, by and large, already has misconceptions about the popularity of democracy within China.

    May Fourth is a different issue entirely. I think it’s a bit ridiculous for you to suggest that the motivations for both protests were entirely the same, although there are plenty of similarities. “Democracy” was a buzzword in both cases; no one is trying to deny that. But we need to be careful defining it, because otherwise, it’s misleading.

    As for the Zhang Yimou stuff, sorry you didn’t like Hero, but I hope you can see that the version of events you seem to be presenting is no less black-and-white than his, it’s just on the other side of the political spectrum.


  17. You’re not sure if the perceived Western media “grudge” against China is better or worse than running unarmed students over with tanks? Maybe you should take a step back.
    My dad, who really does love China, said something very smart about 6/4, after about 100,000 people gathered here in Hong Kong to commemorate it. He said it was only Beijing’s defensiveness that twisted the memorial into something “anti-China.” Holding a memorial is simply remembering history and mourning the dead. I went to the vigil, and almost everyone was Chinese and proud of it. “Anti-China” / “pro-China” is just simple-minded labeling used by some Chinese to deflect criticism that makes them uneasy.
    As for Kristof — I think alot of people in this part of the world pick and choose what they read. If something looks critical of China, they run around like bullied schoolchildren — “Look! Look! Westerners picking on us!” Read Kristof’s works in total, and you will see that the vast majority is about African poverty, literacy and women’s rights, particularly dealing with rape and genital mutiliation. He’s no more “anti-China” than he is anti-Africa or anti-anything. He does what all good international journalists do — he researches a wide range of issues and opines on them.
    There are tons of different opinions on 6/4, and tons of personal reflections from everyone from NYT correspondents to rickshaw drivers. Kritof’s personal essay is just one in millions.
    If there’s a problem with China, it’s not in the NYT Op/Ed page; it’s in Beijing. Just take a look at Zhang’s memoirs.
    P.S. You can read my posts on 6/4 at


  18. Very good post! I wish people from both left and right are willing to have rational and dispassionate discussions like you do.

    Nicholas Kristof has done some good reporting, but when making comments he tends to use hyperboles. He was the one who called the Beijing Olympics “genocide Olympics,” which I blogged about.


  19. Maybe I was carried away by human rigths fanaticism elsewhere, and have forgotten that this place is about democracy. So, the right terms to use should be “democracy fundamentalists/religionists/fanatics”.

    Why on earth did someone invoke the name of Christ in this place? And what the mothe*f*** has to do with this?

    I notice that the rickshaw driver has not been barred from doing the good work that he wanted to do. Or, supposing the troops were still shooting, they apparently did not target him for shooting.

    For democracy religionists who for his religion’s sake invoke the name of Christ, and who question the need to obey authority, I have the following bible passage for them.

    Rom 13:1 Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
    Rom 13:2 Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
    Rom 13:3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
    Rom 13:4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.


  20. Nice post –

    actually, Wu’er Kaixi didn’t mention democracy at all in his statement: “So what do we want? Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society/那么我们所想要的是什么?耐克鞋。有充裕的世间和自己的女朋友去酒吧。有充裕的自由和平等去和别人谈一个问题,能够得到这个社会的尊重。
    He has been criticized for that in some blogs, just google the quote in Chinese.

    You can “find” the full documentary here: – with a nice FLG-ad in the end (whole site blocked by the GFW). If that’s what you meant by “find”… The quality is not great, but it’s watchable.


  21. “Nike shoes. Lots of free time to take our girlfriends to a bar. The freedom to discuss an issue with someone. And to get a little respect from society.” I dunno, that sounds like democracy to me!


  22. @ Jo: Just take a close look what he demanded and what you have in China right now. Nike shoes? Plenty of them. Lots of free time to take your girlfriend to a bar? Go to any given nightclub in any given city in China at any given day. Freedom to discuss an issue? Well, what is “an issue”? You can discuss a lot of things in contemporary China. Respect from society? I don’t fully understand what he means by that, but to me democracy doesn’t necessarily mean that my neighbor thinks everything I’m doing is great (yes, I’m exaggerating).

    If that constitutes democracy to you, that’s fine. To me, democracy means a lot more. In fact, what the Chinese government offered it’s people in the last 20 years is nearly everything Wu’er Kaixi asked for. Still, you can’t cast a vote in that country. Isn’t that strange?

    Bertolt Brecht once said: “First comes a full stomach, then comes ethics. (or: a hungry man has no conscience)” Democracy is the next thing you’ll demand if you’ve bought your share of Nike shoes, had your drinks and discussed some issues. Maybe. Or you’ll get tired of the whole thing and just go on with your life. Like we’re doing it: feeling contempt by knowing that we could vote, if we wanted to. But not actually getting our asses up on election day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s