Nicholas Kristof, May 17, 2014: 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 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 … (read more)