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?