Yang Jianli, leading Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist, addresses the 11th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On being at Tiananmen Square in 1989:

“A friend and I arrived in the square late on the night of June 3 just as the gunshots began. At one point, my friend and I were so close to the soldiers that we could shout up to them in their trucks and tell them not to shoot.”

“I witnessed many people killed, including 11 students who were chased and run over by tanks on the morning of June 4th.”

On universality of human rights:

“In June of 1989, the streets of Beijing witnessed many Chinese like the tank man standing face to face with soldiers who were killing, and face to face with soldiers who opposed the orders to kill. Remembering this, I am convinced the desires for dignity and freedom are indeed universal.”

On future for China:

“I am convinced that no matter how difficult the road ahead, the direction of China’s future must be towards freedom and democracy.”

On being a political prisoner:

“When I was detained in solitary confinement, when I was blindfolded from one prison to another, when my mental condition deteriorated beneath isolation, repeated interrogations and ongoing psychological and physical torture, I could not but help think of the worst.”

“[But as soon as] I knew I was not alone, from that moment, I could stand up to defend my rights, and defend the rights of other inmates.”

Full Remarks

This photograph of the Tank Man is one of the most famous images of the 20th century. It was taken during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

Who was this Tank Man? No one knows. For nearly 30 years, people have wondered what became of him, but his identity and his fate are still a mystery.

This mystery lingers because the Chinese government has made every effort to suppress the truth about what happened at Tiananmen. To this day, people in China who dare to remember face brutal persecution.

Part of the immediate power of this image was not just that it showed one man standing vulnerable in front of a column of tanks, but also that the whole world knew about the events that had preceded this moment. The Tank Man had survived a massacre. And yet here he was, still risking his life.

I was a student protester in Tiananmen Square when the massacre began. A friend and I arrived in the square late on the night of June 3 just as the gunshots began. At one point, my friend and I were so close to the soldiers that we could shout up to them in their trucks and tell them not to shoot. We told them they had no idea what was going on here, and we tried to touch their hearts by singing songs that every Chinese would know. But when they received the order, they just opened fire.

I witnessed many people killed, including 11 students who were chased and run over by tanks on the morning of June 4th.

The Tank Man photo was taken the next day, on June 5th, while the massacre was still going on.

By any measure, this picture is an image of heroism. But how many heroes do we see?

Nearly nine years after the picture was taken, the writer Pico Lyer said, “The heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot.”

Not only did the second Tank Man, the driver, refuse to kill, he undoubtedly disobeyed orders and risked—and perhaps received—punishment in the service of a countryman’s life.

Victimized by the same regime, these two heroic Tank Men remind us that those who stand opposite us are not necessarily our enemies. Common sense, conscience, and humanity can prevail, even under brutal circumstances.

I unfortunately lost sight of this truth during an extreme moment.

After watching troops kill people on June 4th, I saw a young soldier on Chang’an Avenue standing all by himself. He wasn’t wearing a helmet, and he didn’t have a gun. He looked just like a teenager.

The people I was with chased him because they were sad and angry. I gave him a punch. More and more people gathered around him and beat him. When the crowd knocked him to the ground, he yelled: “I didn’t do it! I didn’t shoot!”

I realized that a tragedy was inevitable. I left the scene without looking back. A few minutes later, I knew from the loud shouts behind me that he’d been killed, and I began to cry.

Like all the other soldiers, that teenager had been forced to come to Beijing to massacre protesting students and civilians. Like us, he was powerless to stop the tragedy. Out of conscience, he had probably refused to kill, choosing instead to be a deserter. If so, he was a hero, too. A Tank Man in the opposite camp.

But I was not.

I let anger get the better of me. I had seen fellow students crushed beneath tanks, whose only crime was calling for a democratic future.  So when I saw this soldier, I saw him only as my enemy, and I punched him. This might be the biggest sin of my life. I can’t imagine the pain he suffered when he was dying, or what was on his mind as he was being killed by an angry and frightened mob.

For nearly thirty years I have been mourning him. I think about his family, and I still look to a day when I find them and share my guilt.

Heroic feats often happen in moments that go unnoticed. In June of 1989, the streets of Beijing witnessed many Chinese like the Tank Man, standing face-to-face with soldiers who were killing. And on those streets there were also some soldiers, like the second Tank Man, and like the deserter, who opposed the orders to kill.

Remembering this, I am convinced that no matter how difficult the road ahead, the direction of China’s future must be towards freedom and democracy. The natural human desires for dignity and freedom are indeed universal.

Although the Chinese communist regime has become increasingly unwilling to reform, and although China’s leader has recently assumed the role of “president for life,” many within the system do not wish to stand in the way of history.

I started by saying that we still don’t know who the Tank Man is, or what happened to him. And the same is true of the second Tank Man. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, I call friends of human rights around the world to press the Chinese government to tell us what happened to the “tank men.” The truth about the tank men will help with the resolution of the Tiananmen issue which will in turn help to push the door open to true, democratic reform.

Now, I turn to moderate this panel. The panel is supporting political prisoners. In the hallway, there are a lot of photos of prisoners of conscience. Of the 36 photos, 18 are prisoners of China. One being young Gao Jian Li Hama Takhti and many many many others. So the work to support prisoners of conscience is very important.

I can testify to the importance based on my personal experience. When I was detained in solitary confinement, when I was blindfolded from one prison to another, when my mental condition deteriorated beneath endless isolation, repeated interrogations, and ongoing psychological and physical torture, I could not but help thinking the worst: my friends have already forgotten about me, my family members have already abandoned me. I almost collapsed until one day a lawyer was the first to come visit me. That visit only became possible with the pressure from the international community. From that visit, I learned there was outpouring of support for me from the international community. From that moment, I knew that I was not alone, after so many people like you are behind me. And from that moment, actually that visit ended the solitary confinement, and from that moment I could stand up to defend my rights and defend the rights of others, other inmates. So, the voice here, the work we do to support prisoners of conscience is very important. 

Today, we will hear three speakers: either you know, former political prisoners or prisoners’ families to speak about their imprisonment. The first speaker is Mr. Nguyen Van Dai. He is a pro-democracy activist and the co-founder of the Vietnam Human Rights Committee. He has provided legal assistance to government critics and members of religious minorities. Since 2007, Nguyen Van Dai has been arrested multiple times and faced a lengthy prison sentence. In 2018, Mr. Nguyen was finally released from prison and exiled. Now, he resides in Germany.

Our second speaker is Mr. Vicente de Lima. He is the brother of detained Philippines Senator Leila de Lima, a prominent voice for human rights in the Philippines. Since 2017, she has been arbitrarily detained due to her strong opposition to President Duterte’s drug war.

Our third speaker is Mr. Richard Ratcliffe. Mr. Ratcliffe is husband to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian charity worker who has been arbitrarily detained for three years. The UK government recently invoked diplomatic protection for his wife – the first time this has been done by the UK for an individual in over 100 years. Richard also works with families of other nationals arbitrarily detained in Iran to build pressure for their release. Now we will hear one after another from our wonderful speakers. First, I invite Mr. Nguyen Van Dai to the podium.

12th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, March 25, 2019

Speakers and Participants

Yang Jianli

Chinese dissident, former political prisoner, Tiananmen Square massacre survivor and President of Initiatives for China

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