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If you like Nicholas Kristof's story, you might also like:
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David Halberstam,
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Mike Wallace and
Bob Woodward

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Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof
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Nicholas Kristof Interview

Journalist, Author & Columnist

July 3, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  Nicholas Kristof

You and your wife Sheryl won the Pulitzer Prize for your coverage of the democracy movement in China, and the government's violent reaction at Tiananmen Square. What was it like to be in China at that time?

Nicholas Kristof: We had done a lot of interviews with Chinese, and the period before Tiananmen was just an unbelievable time to be a journalist in China, because it was becoming more open. We were able to develop very good friendships with quite senior people. I remember at one point, in fact, interviewing a high-level adviser, and his next appointment -- after we had lunch -- his next appointment was in Zhongnanhai, which is the compound for the leaders. He didn't have a vehicle, so I said, "Do you want me to take you?" And what do you know, I was able actually to drive him right in the compound, right into Zhongnanhai, with me as a driver, me with a foreign car. We look back on the period of openness, when we had a lot of friends. They were typically Communist party reformers or in the Communist party apparatus, and that became very, very useful then, a few months later, when the crackdown came and we had channels to find out what was going on.

Can you describe the crackdown?

Nicholas Kristof: When the demonstrations began, there was a lot of giddy expectation in the West that if you've got a million students in the streets that the people will prevail. "The people united will never be defeated" kind of thing. And in fact, I think any student of Chinese history knew that the people united are often defeated, and that courage and integrity are no match for AK-47s. And so we didn't share (that) entirely. We hoped for the best, we hoped for a peaceful outcome, but we also were prepared for a bloody dénouement, and indeed our sources had told us that was what was going to happen.

Nicholas Kristof Interview Photo
They knew?

Nicholas Kristof: Yes. Martial law had been declared on the night of May 19th, 1989, and that was two weeks before the crackdown, but already at that point, a lot of people were telling us that it was going to end with bloodshed. I remember meeting with one man who had been a senior official, and we met secretly, and he told me, "I'm going to go to jail. All of my friends and colleagues are going to go to jail, and the streets will be red with blood."

Why would he go to jail?

Nicholas Kristof: Because he had supported the wrong person, and partly because he was speaking with me. He said that the reformers would be jailed, and he was right. So on June 4th, 1989, the troops moved in, slaughtered people, and indeed, a lot of the reformers, including that man, were imprisoned.

So we were expecting bloodshed, or at least thought it was a strong possibility, and then I remember the night of June 3rd, there had been particularly ominous rumblings that day that things were afoot. And at about ten p.m., suddenly a bunch of people started calling that troops are moving in and they're opening fire. And so there were a bunch of roadblocks on the roads, set up by the protesters so tanks -- soldiers -- could not just come in. I couldn't drive there, so I took my bicycle and bicycled like mad to Tiananmen Square and parked my bike there, under the Mao portrait, under the Chairman Mao portrait. And it was just about when the soldiers were arriving from the other direction, and they opened fire on the crowd that I was in. So I was pushed back, left my bike there, and next time, weeks later when the square was opened up, there was a tank sitting right where my bike had been. I stayed with the crowd for several hours. We were being pushed back. The crowd would be pushed back, and they'd get very angry, and they'd start to go forward a little bit, and kids would start throwing stones, and the troops would open fire again. And then there'd be a lull, and then they would go forward. I remember trying always to stay back from the very front of the crowd so that there'd be other people that would absorb the bullets, but also then realizing at one point that I was a few inches taller than the average Chinese in front of me, so that a crucial part of me was actually exposed in it. After that I kept lower.

I was taking notes, and I had a notebook, and it's still stained with sweat, mostly sweat of fear. It was very scary being out on the square that night and watching. The thing that I maybe remember most...

There had been a big discussion, and there still is, about the propriety of democracy in a developing country. Are people ready for it? If they're illiterate, then can they really make the decisions necessary in a democracy? And it's obviously a valid question to think about, but that night, the real heroes of it weren't the university students, the teachers. They were the uneducated, often illiterate peasants who were the rickshaw drivers. Whenever the troops opened fire, and we would all run back and run away, then these rickshaw drivers would, with incredible courage, go out and peddle their little bicycle rickshaws out toward the soldiers, into this no-man's land. Pick up the bodies of the kids who'd been killed or injured, put them on the back of their rickshaws, and then drive back toward the hospitals. It was an unbelievable display of courage, and if you'd asked them what is democracy, they certainly couldn't have given you an elegant definition of it, but they were risking their lives for it. And I've never forgotten that display of courage, and I think there's a lot for us all to learn from that the next time we sort of paternalistically say that, "Well, people may not quite be ready for democracy."

Where was your wife in all this?

Nicholas Kristof: My wife was at home that evening, filing her story. It was actually kind of agonizing for her and for my editors, because it was a Saturday night when we have early deadlines. In the course of being shot at, I'd quite forgotten that it was Saturday night and that the deadlines were early. After I'd stayed for quite a while in this crowd, being shot at, of course I couldn't get back to my bike. We'd been driven well away from that. But I ran to the hospital and interviewed some doctors there and then I ran back home. It was quite a bit later than I should have been back, and so they'd been quite worried about it.

You failed to file when they expected you to file?

Nicholas Kristof Interview Photo
Nicholas Kristof: Yes. I was at least an hour late coming back. I hadn't appreciated, since it was a Saturday night, early deadlines, so they thought that maybe the reason that I wasn't coming back was that I'd been shot, as opposed to just having a very bad sense of the time.

Did your wife know what was going on? It wasn't covered on Chinese TV, was it?

Nicholas Kristof: No, but they knew what was going on. There were guns going off, and she was on the phone with New York, who was wondering, where's Nick? So she knew exactly what was going on.

It must have been harrowing for her.

Nicholas Kristof: It was. I haven't given her gray hairs, because she doesn't have any gray hairs, but it can be a difficult thing to be a partner of somebody who is a journalist in this kind of situation.

Did the fear factor remain after that one day?

Nicholas Kristof: There was a period for about the next week when the soldiers were doing a fair amount of shooting. I think the moment that I was really sobered was less that first night when I was in the crowd of people, because it was a big crowd. There were a lot of people being shot, but that was in a crowd of more than a thousand. Maybe that gave me a false confidence.

The next day we sneaked into the hospital. The soldiers had ringed the hospital, but some friendly doctors smuggled me in through an underground tunnel from a nearby building, and not only were all the beds filled, but the aisles were full of kids who'd been shot. I talked to them, and it was clear that some of them were people who had taken a great risk. They had been in the front of the crowd. But there were an awful lot of them who had taken a very minor risk. I mean, they were taking risks comparable to those I had taken, or even lesser risks, but their luck had run out, and that was scary, to talk to people who had done exactly what I'd done and their number had come up. Being in that hospital corridor, stained with blood, in general it was a difficult time, and then also, a lot of our friends were imprisoned, were fleeing the country.

Our own most difficult crisis came when we had -- there was a young man called Liu Xiang, who had helped us cover Tsinghua University. He was a student, and he had once registered us in the more open time to get into Tsinghua. And afterward, there he was, in this crackdown that got him into trouble. He was interrogated regularly about it. Finally he thought he was about to be arrested, and he fled. He ended up being imprisoned and he escaped from prison and came back to Beijing and asked for our help. Sheryl and I just agonized over that. One thing that is pretty clear in journalistic ethics is that you don't help an escaped felon leave the country. And if we did that, we would be not only breaking Chinese law, we'd be also risking the closure of the New York Times bureau. We knew we couldn't ask our editors for advice, because a) the phone lines were tapped, but b), they could never endorse us risking the closure of the New York Times bureau. On the other hand, here's a 19-year-old kid who was in trouble because he had helped us and the New York Times readers. If we didn't help him, he was going to be caught at some point, and who knows what would happen to him. We just agonized over our moral responsibilities there. It was also a little bit complicated, because we worried that this might be an effort to set us up. It was a time when the government didn't like my reporting and appeared to be trying to kick us out of the country, and it occurred to us that they might have let him out of prison so that he would then compromise us, catch us breaking the law, and then kick us out of the country. It was an immensely difficult decision, but we finally decided we just had to help him. We helped him, in a way with as few fingerprints as we possibly could. He was able to escape to Hong Kong and I flew down the next day and helped him get to the States. He is now in the States. It was enormously unprofessional and yet absolutely the right thing to do.

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This page last revised on Sep 18, 2008 15:53 EDT