Horror and heroism: Tears of a rickshaw driver shed as dreams of democracy die

The New York TimesJune 1, 2014 

The bodies of dead civilians lie among mangled bicycles near Beijing's Tiananmen Square in this June 4, 1989 file photo.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the rickshaw driver, tears streaming down his cheeks, rushing a gravely injured student to hospital — and away from the soldiers who had just gunned him down.

That rickshaw driver was a brave man, a better man than I, and he taught me an indelible lesson.

We were on the Avenue of Eternal Peace in Beijing, beside Tiananmen Square, on the night of June 3, 1989, and the Chinese army was crushing the student democracy movement that convulsed China that spring 25 years ago.

Millions of protesters filled the streets in hundreds of cities around China from mid-April through early June that year, demanding free speech, democracy and an end to corruption. I was living in China then as the Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times, and it was an unforgettable — and, initially, inspiring — tapestry of valor and yearning.

Protesters acknowledged that their lives were improving dramatically, but they said that it was not enough. They insisted that they wanted not just rice, but also rights.

To this day, it is the most polite protest movement I’ve ever covered. After shoving their way through police lines, student marchers would pause, turn around and chant, “Thank you, police!” Some students were assigned to pick up any shoes lost in the commotion and return them to the students or police officers who had lost them.

The student protesters took over central Beijing for weeks. Then, on the night of June 3, the army invaded Beijing from several directions as if it were a foreign army, shooting at everything that moved. Miles from Tiananmen Square, the teenage brother of a friend was shot dead by soldiers as he simply bicycled to work.

As the invasion began, I jumped on my bike and raced to Tiananmen Square, where throngs of citizens had come out on the streets to try to protect the student protesters. They were shot.

The most heroic people on that terrible night and into the morning of June 4 were the rickshaw drivers, driving three-wheel bicycle carts used to haul goods around the city. With each pause in the shooting, these rickshaw drivers would pedal out toward the troops and pick up the bodies of the students who had been killed or injured.

The soldiers were unforgiving, shooting even at ambulances trying to pick up bodies. But those rickshaw men were undeterred.

Their bravery particularly resonated because I had heard so often that spring, from foreigners and Chinese officials alike, that China was unready for democracy, that its people weren’t sufficiently educated or sophisticated. And it’s true that democracy tends to find firmer root in educated, middle-class societies.

Yet I vividly remember that one rickshaw driver, a burly man in a T-shirt who perhaps had never graduated from high school. Yet what courage! I found myself holding my breath, wondering if he would be shot, as he drove out to pick up a body. He placed the young man on his cart and pedaled for his life back toward us. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

He saw me, the foreigner, and swerved to drive slowly by me so that I could bear witness to what the government had done. It was a terrifying night, and I can’t remember just what his words were, but it was something to the effect that I should tell the world what was happening.

Sure, he couldn’t have offered a robust definition of democracy. But he was risking his life for it.

A quarter-century has passed. The bullet holes in the buildings along the Avenue of Eternal Peace have been patched, and history similarly sanitized. I was staggered when a Chinese university student looked puzzled when I mentioned the massacre; it turned out that she had never <cf10> heard of it.

It’s also true that China has progressed enormously. Incomes have soared, housing has improved and the latest figures (which should be taken with a grain of salt) suggest that the rate of death from pregnancy and childbirth is lower in China than in the United States.

That rickshaw driver may not have the vote, but his children may well attend university. The progress is unarguable. Yet human dignity demands not just rice, but also rights.

The great Chinese writer Lu Xun once wrote, about an earlier massacre: “Lies written in ink cannot disguise facts written in blood”

As China prospers and builds an educated middle class, demands for participation will grow. I’ve covered democracy movements around the world, from Poland to South Korea, and I’m confident that someday, at Tiananmen Square, I’ll be able to pay my respects at a memorial to those men and women killed that night. I’m hoping the memorial will be a statue of a rickshaw driver.

Nicholas Kristof is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist. Contact him at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof

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