Yang Jianli, leading Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist, addressed the 11th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy — see quotes below.

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, photos, livestream, and more, click here.

11th Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Main Event, Tuesday, March 26, 2019

On being at Tienanmen 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.”

UN Opening Event, Monday, March 25, 2019

“Today, we must end the reeducation concentration camps where more than one million people — 10% of the Uyghurs — are detained.”

“70 years ago, political leaders, and civil society rose to the challenge of their time. Surely today, we can rise to the most pressing challenges of our time.”

Full remarks, as prepared:

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.

Yang Jianli at UN opening of 2019 Geneva Summit