Kristof: Memories of bullets over Beijing

Twenty years ago I stood on the northwest corner of Tiananmen Square and watched "People's China" open fire on the people.

It was night; the gunfire roared; and the Avenue of Eternal Peace was streaked with blood. Uniformed army troops massed on the far end of the square, periodically raising their assault rifles and firing directly at the crowd, and we all would rush backward in terror until the firing stopped. Then the volley would end, and in the silence we would stop and look back. In the hundred yards between us and the soldiers would be kids who had been shot, lying dead or wounded.

Some protesters shouted insults at the troops or threw bricks or Molotov cocktails that landed ineffectually in the open area. But none of us dared to go forward to help the injured as they writhed.

I was the Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times, and I was cowering behind a layer of other people whom I hoped would absorb bullets. Troops already had opened fire on an ambulance that had tried to collect the injured, so other ambulances stayed back.

Finally, some unlikely saviors emerged — rickshaw drivers.

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

One rickshaw driver, tears streaming down his cheeks, drove past me with 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.

That was happening all over Beijing. On the old airport road that same night, truckloads of troops were entering the city from the east. A middle-aged bus driver saw them and blocked the road with his bus. Move aside, the troops shouted. The driver plucked the keys from the ignition and hurled them into the bushes to ensure that no one could move that bus. The man was arrested; I don't know what happened to him.

So, 20 years later, what happened to that bold yearning for democracy? Why is China still frozen politically even as it has transformed economically? Why are there so few protests today?

One answer is that most energy has been diverted to making money, partly because it's a safer outlet. One of my Chinese friends explains that if he were to protest loudly, he might be arrested; if he were to protest quietly, it would be a waste of time. "I may as well just spend the time watching a pirated DVD," he said.

Another answer is that many of those rickshaw drivers and others in 1989 were demanding not precisely a parliamentary democracy, but a better life — and they got it. The Communist Party has done an extraordinarily good job of managing China's economy and of elevating economically the people it oppresses politically.

Living standards have soared, and people in Beijing may not have the vote, but they do have an infant mortality rate 27 percent lower than New York City's.

Not all is sweet: The environment is a catastrophe, an ugly nationalism is surging among some young Chinese and even nonpolitical Chinese chafe at corruption and at Web censorship.

Balancing that, their children now get an education far better than in earlier generations — better overall than many children get in the United States.

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.