Nicholas Kristoff, an eyewitness, recalls June 4 at Tiananmen Square

Whatever you do, be sure to see Kristoff’s NY Times column today. He was an eyewitness to the June 4 madness at Tiananmen Square 15 years ago and, as always when he writes about this subject, you know it’s from the heart.

Like most commentators on China, he acknowledges the new personal liberties while criticizing the continued strangulation of politcal freedoms. He notes the challenges the government faces and how at any time the right combination of factors can bring it down.

But then he makes a personal observation of that day in 1989 that stopped me for a moment. I could tell how strongly he felt as he wrote it, and I identified with every word. It’s what I’ve been trying to articulate here for two years.

It’s often said that an impoverished, poorly educated, agrarian country like China cannot sustain democracy. Yet my most powerful memory of that night 15 years ago is of the peasants who had come to Beijing to work as rickshaw drivers.

During each lull in the firing, we could see the injured, caught in a no-man’s-land between us and the troops. We wanted to rescue them but didn’t have the guts. While most of us in the crowd cowered and sought cover, it was those uneducated rickshaw drivers who pedaled out directly toward the troops to pick up the bodies of the dead and wounded.

Some of the rickshaw drivers were shot, but the rest saved many, many lives that night, rushing the wounded to hospitals as tears streamed down their cheeks. It would be churlish to point out that such people are ill-prepared for democracy, when they risked their lives for it.

We’re forgetting that point, when we say the Chinese don’t care so much for democracy as long as they can move up in the world. How can that be true if they were willing to die for it, even at a time of dramatic financial advancement? Aren’t we selling them short? I know it’s a very different time, but so many stories of individual heroism, all in the name of the same ideal, make their way into the papers every day.

Kristoff still believes they deserve democracy, that they crave it and can handle it. And so do I.

The Discussion: 14 Comments


The Duck links to the Times. Go read them both….

June 2, 2004 @ 4:32 am | Comment

I don’t mean to gush, as I often don’t approve of Kristoff’s writing on a personal level. But….

A big but….

The comment you post about how the farmers carried the wounded….that will stick with me, and in a good place. Always.

June 2, 2004 @ 7:55 am | Comment


15 years ago, I was also in China, I was not in Beijing but in the recently “opened” Dalian. It was an amazing time that…due to my youth and newness to China…I have always felt was taking place just outside of my realm of total comprehension.

June 2, 2004 @ 8:18 am | Comment

They crave democracy, and they can handle it…I think so too.

And that’s also true of Iraqis.

June 2, 2004 @ 8:20 am | Comment

A democratic China would be a great and powerful country.

I bet you did more than you realize to help the process along while you were there, as an example of how a free person thinks/lives.

June 2, 2004 @ 12:29 pm | Comment

Well, Boo, it would be nice to think so, but I hardly think I had that much (if any) impact.

To the anonymous commenter who says Iraq craves democracy as much as China, all I can say is I don’t know. As I watch more archival footage of life in Baghdad, some of it only two or three years old, I have to wonder if they’re ready. Just as in Afghanistan, they are so used to brutal leaders telling them what to do, and I fear things will deteriorate after we pull out, despite our giving them the infrastructure for democracy. Very depressing.

June 2, 2004 @ 12:36 pm | Comment

what happened in 1989 was not the struggle between oldtime communists and so-called reformers. Rather it was the fight between gradualists and the radicals who wanted radical political change overnight. I would say that gradualists should feel vindicated by the great transformation of China over the last 15 years. Tiananmen is indeed a tragedy and yet something very positive have come out of it. The crackdown
has help removing the single crucial cultural element in Chinese society that hinderd the China’s development over the last 200 years– the anti-commerce attitude of the chinese intellectuals.

June 2, 2004 @ 2:28 pm | Comment

I don’t understand your last point, Jin — about the Tiananmen Square crackdown defeating the “anti-commerce attitude of the Chinese intellectuals.” Can you elaborate?

I disagree with your other point, how the winners were gradualists who want to give political freedoms slowly over time. It’s been 15 years, and you can still get arrested and locked up for years for criticising the government and advocating democracy. So where’s the political freedoms that are supposed to come gradually? There are a few — very, very few. There have been a few successful lawsuits against the government, and you can talk a bit more freely than you could under Deng. But you can still be arrested and held at the mercy of the state anytime they choose. There are still no free elections. There’s still one political party. There’s still rampant corruption. You can call the protesters “radical” as much as you want, but millions of ordinary Chinese — doctors, soldiers, police officers, teachers, rickshaw drivers — supported the protest and joined in. And many paid the ultimate price for their enthusiasm.

June 2, 2004 @ 2:46 pm | Comment

What I meant was the crackdown was the beginning of the transformation of the Chinese culture. It changed how the chinese students choose careers. It changed the way government treats the businessmen. The students have since become so sick of the politics that they no longer consider governemnet jobs as
their ultimate lifetime goals. They have been forced to pursue other career options because political careers were out of the questions. It thus fundementally changed the struture of the chinese society. This is a process of turning tax-spenders
(government bureucrats) into tax-payers. The result so far has been very positive. If you want the answer of how China has been so successful in re-invented itself after 1989 this is it. The great societal cultural change.

June 2, 2004 @ 3:11 pm | Comment

The peasant rickshaw drivers story would be a very convincing anecdote except I’m not so sure that those drivers were actually peasants. Nowadays most low-level manual labor job in most Chinese cities are filled by people from the countryside, but in 1989, this was not the case. Back then, those jobs were still performed by city folks. There are many pictures of these rickshaw drivers on various websites, and to me they don’t look anything like Chinese peasants of the time. There are also other reasons for not believing that these drivers were peasants. In 1989, there were still extremely strict measures in place that prevented any significant population movement. Even ignoring the political problems with various government offices, a peasant can not survive any extended period in the city for the simple fact that he will not be able to find any housing or even buy rice in the city. To buy rice or any sort of grain in the city, a city dweller needed to go to his local government grain stations with his city Hukou and ration book, which a rural resident will not have. Even eating at a restaurant required ration coupons. City housing was even more strictly controlled. For these reasons, there were pretty much no peasant workers in large cities like Beijing (small towns were another matter).

June 3, 2004 @ 2:10 am | Comment

I think Kristoff is far too good a reporter to state as fact that they were peasants if he hadn’t spoken with them. Hard for us to know. But whether they were peasants or not, it hardly detracts from his point. They certainly weren’t members of the intellectual gentry.

June 3, 2004 @ 1:16 pm | Comment

Yesterday and today I asked several co-workers, one, 30 something and the others in their 20s about the tanks pictured above. They did not know what the photo was or where it was taken. They did not know about the 6/4 protests in general. Effective censorship and control?

While I think all peoples deserve democracy, I am not sure the mainland Chinese crave it or that it is good to institute all in one immediate stroke in the near future. At this time I would fear, if the CP did not hijack free elections for itself, that the strongmen, the crooks, the deceivers would take to the elections like ducks to water and leave the thoughtful, straight and honest people out in the cold. It seems to me that preparatory education on democracy would be needed before full suffrage is instituted.

Perhaps Taiwan could be helpful here by unilaterally stating its position for re-unification discussions:
1. universal sufferage
2. multi-party elections
3. drastic limits on government consorship
4. drastic limitations on PRC’s draconian laws, especially regarding free speech and press and association
5 making the paper human rights in the PRC constitution living rights in court and society
6 effectively tackle official corruption at all gov’t levels
7 do away with spitting in public and throwing away garbage, at least from vehicles

June 3, 2004 @ 7:12 pm | Comment

While I think all peoples deserve democracy, I am not sure the mainland Chinese crave it or that it is good to institute all in one immediate stroke in the near future.

That certainly maybe true; I don’t know. What I do know is that no one should be arrested for talking about it. I also know that after 6/4, people in China have been far less outspoken about the need for democracy, having seen what the state is willing to do to kill that conversation.

June 3, 2004 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

Don’t rush democracy, how many African countries went too quickly from Empire to African rule and ended up worse off then they were under the British. It’s no use having the vote if your population can be coerced into using it through threats, sweet words, or old alliances.

China has to have a long period of stability and growth before it will be ready for a European style of Government. You have to start at the local level and work up or you will end up with the most powerful businessman, or worse still, a soldier climbing up the hill to the presidential office.

The colonies that Britain was forced to prematurely leave are a reminder to us that democracy is not easy to hold on to once the wrong man takes power.

June 5, 2004 @ 6:12 am | Comment

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