25 Years Later: What Have We Learned About China Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre?

tags: China, Tiananmen Square, Sino-American relations



Dr. Joe Renouard is an associate professor of history at The Citadel. He specializes in the study of modern international history, human rights, and American foreign relations. His latest book, "No Internal Affairs on Our Crowded Earth: Human Rights in American Foreign Policy," will be published in 2015 by Penn Press.


In 1989, Europeans witnessed some of the most revolutionary changes of the twentieth century. As the Kremlin began to lift the veil of oppression from the Soviet Union via Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost’ and perestroika reforms, East/West tensions reached a new low. When Moscow renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine, which had long held out the threat of intervention in Warsaw Pact nations, the peoples of Hungary and Poland overturned their governments in free elections. By the end of the year, popular regime changes had swept the region.

China’s 1989 proved to be a very different kind of turning point. From April to June, hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens took to the streets to demand political and civil reforms, anti-corruption measures, and a stronger economy. While Western observers celebrated this movement as a symbol of democracy’s global march, Chinese leaders were alarmed. Believing that the demonstrators were a threat to the state, the hard-liners won out and the government quelled the “rebellion” by force of arms. On June 3-4, tanks from the People’s Liberation Army gained control of Beijing, but at the cost of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of citizens’ lives.

Twenty-five years later, the contrast between China’s economic vibrancy and its dearth of civil and political liberties is as strong as ever, and human rights and democracy are significant sources of conflict in Sino-American relations. Talk of a new “cold war” between Washington and Beijing may be premature, but there is no denying the rise in trans-Pacific suspicions. Americans who fear China’s growing economic, diplomatic, and military power see human rights as a point of vulnerability for Beijing. Consequently, acrimonious exchanges and tit-for-tat accusations have become common along the Washington-Beijing axis, though with few positive outcomes for Chinese citizens. There is lots of talk, but little action.

The Shock of Tiananmen

Washington paid scant attention to Beijing’s internal policies in the 1970s and 80s. Following President Richard Nixon’s 1972 engagement, Sino-American relations continued apace with nary a mention of democracy or human rights. When policymakers did express misgivings about closer ties to Beijing, their primary concern was Washington’s old ally, Taiwan, not the absence of democracy in China.

Meanwhile, political support for closer Sino-American ties was popular and largely bipartisan. Legislators and presidents from Nixon to George H.W. Bush were remarkably consistent in their view that Beijing’s authoritarianism was more than offset by the advantages of closer trade and security ties. At the very least, many argued, China was a valuable counterweight to the Soviet menace. In the words of Senator Henry M. Jackson (D-WA), “Basic Soviet policies constitute a real threat to our interests and those of our allies. Basic Chinese policies do not.” In the eighties, Americans could also point to Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms as evidence of China’s increasingly liberal posture.

The June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre killed China’s image as a reforming, modernizing state. At the exact moment when Americans were losing their fear of the Russian bear in the age of Gorbachev, glasnost’, and perestroika, China replaced the Soviet Union as the West’s bête noir overnight, and a new set of images was seared into the global conscious. These included, most notably, the foam and papier mâché “Goddess of Democracy” provocatively staring down Mao Zedong’s visage on the Gate of Heavenly Peace; democracy advocate Wang Dan addressing the young denizens in Tiananmen Square; and a lone citizen brazenly halting a column of tanks on Chang’an Avenue. In an age obsessed with images, this anonymous “Tank Man” became one of the most recognizable of the modern era – a powerful symbol of individual will versus overwhelming power.

The international backlash was swift and harsh. A replica of the Goddess of Democracy was erected in front of the Chinese embassy in Washington, and Deng Xiaoping was hanged in effigy. People around the world began to call Deng “the butcher of Beijing.” President Bush was appalled by the violence and the ensuing show trials, but he was also unwilling to see the relationship derailed. Despite a ban on high-level contacts – and against the tide of popular opinion – he sent his national security adviser on a secret mission to urge leniency and to rekindle the relationship.

Congress was not so agreeable. With President Bush only halfheartedly supporting punitive measures, a curious legislative coalition took the lead in punishing Beijing. Liberals like Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) joined with such strange bedfellows as the conservative Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) to level painful sanctions and to condition most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status.

But these were hollow victories. Congress and President Bill Clinton succeeded in conditioning MFN in 1993 (candidate Clinton had earlier accused Bush of “coddling criminals”), but once it became clear that Beijing was unwilling to budge on the key conditions, Washington blinked. Clinton restored MFN in 1994, and in the process asked rhetorically, “Will we do more to advance the cause of human rights if China is isolated? . . . The best path for advancing freedom in China is for the United States to intensify and broaden its engagement with that nation.”

Sino-American Relations and Human Rights

In the years since, Washington has pursued an awkward, Janus-like combination of closer economic and financial ties offset by occasional public criticism of China’s human rights record. The full extent of Sino-American exchanges is considerable. Total bilateral trade in goods in 2013 amounted to $562 billion, with a substantial trade deficit for the U.S. China is also the largest foreign holder of United States debt. As of February 2014, Beijing maintains $1.273 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities.

Meanwhile, Chinese authoritarianism has remained an official Washington concern since the nineties. U.S. ambassadors have held dozens of private talks with China on a host of human rights matters in the last two decades, and the White House has worked to free several dissidents. China also figures prominently in the State Department’s annual reports on human rights, democracy promotion, religious freedom, and human trafficking. The most recent human rights report on China clocks in at over 55,000 words (about 130 single-spaced pages) and documents everything from the lack of democracy to serious violations of political and civil liberties.

The Legislative Branch is also in on the act. Legislators have publicized the plight of dissidents and have sponsored dozens of resolutions expressing concern over human rights in China. Congressional committees have highlighted the suffering of Tibetans, Uighurs, the Falun Gong, and other dissident groups through hearings with titles like Continued Human Rights Attacks on Families in China, China’s Latest Crackdown on Dissent, and Organ Harvesting of Religious and Political Dissidents by the Chinese Communist Party.

More objective sources confirm that Beijing’s domestic abuses are legion and that China is working to undermine human rights globally. Amnesty International’s most recent China report cites evidence of forced evictions, arbitrary incarceration, and strict limits on speech and the press. Human Rights Watch echoes these charges, accusing Beijing of outlawing independent labor unions and human rights organizations, and of placing “arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion.”

Yet while activists hope that this publicity will encourage liberal reforms, Beijing invariably closes ranks against what it sees as an aggressive Washington acting in concert with overzealous NGOs to shame, insult, and weaken a sovereign nation. Chinese leaders have responded by touting their nation’s unparalleled economic growth as evidence of their commitment to progress and “economic and social rights.” Indeed, this remarkable growth effectively undergirds Beijing’s perspective on the legacy of 1989, viz. that civil and political reforms are unnecessary as long as living standards rise and the state is willing to use force against dissent. Put another way, there can be Chinese perestroika without glasnost’. But the events of 1989 also reminded these leaders of the Lockean maxim that legitimacy stems from public acceptance of authority. In the 1990s and 2000s, then, Beijing reinforced its bargain to the Chinese people. If citizens pursued their economic desires, they would have the state’s full support; but if they pursued civil and political liberties, they would be punished.

Beijing has also gone on a counter-offensive. It has used diplomatic and economic initiatives to weaken international human rights agreements, and it has maintained ties with, and even helped prop up, authoritarian regimes in Asia and the Global South – an effort that its critics have dubbed “dictatorship diplomacy.” China also produces its own annual report on human rights in the United States. Last year’s release catalogued America’s poverty and wealth gap, abuses in the War on Terror, the “astonishing casualties” from gun crimes, and low voter turnout in elections. “U.S. citizens have never really enjoyed common and equal suffrage,” it said.

Beijing consistently labels American human rights and democracy pronouncements as anti-China provocations. When U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke left his post in February 2014, he made a strong human rights statement. “China has a great future ahead of it,” said Locke. “But reaching its full potential will depend on . . . respect for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech for all, an open internet, a well-informed citizenry willing to engage in unrestricted dialogue.” Pro forma, the Chinese foreign ministry registered its opposition to this interference and announced that its citizens enjoyed “unprecedented rights and freedoms.” The China News Service even stooped to racial epithets, calling the Chinese-American ambassador “a banana — yellow skin and white heart.”

Has this antagonism changed anything? Every now and again, the U.S. is able to negotiate a dissident’s freedom. And the fact that Beijing is willing to hold private talks on human rights matters suggests that Chinese leaders grudgingly accept international standards. But these are hardly major victories. Beijing may actually prefer the exile of dissidents because the initial euphoria surrounding their release invariably gives way to long-term obscurity. And China’s relegation of human rights issues to the diplomatic backrooms is really a convenient way to keep them from public discussion. Irrespective of the sound and fury coming from Washington, China remains an authoritarian state that is unwilling to bend to outside pressure. Considering American policymakers’ limited influence over Beijing, it is possible that many are just gunning for political points by claiming to be “doing something” about Chinese human rights. Then again, it is hard to fault these officials and activists for publicizing human suffering, even if they cannot alleviate it.

We should not expect Sino-American conflicts over democracy and human rights to abate anytime soon. Not only has an expanding body of laws, conventions, and courts woven human rights norms into the fabric of international relations, but for cultural and ideological reasons Americans will continue to fault China on civil and political liberties while Beijing will continue to prioritize order in the pursuit of rising living standards. Meanwhile, some Americans will continue to view China as a commercial rival, and even as a future security threat. Of course, the Chinese people themselves remain the most important variable in this equation. It remains to be seen how Beijing will respond if China’s growing middle class demands civil and political rights to match their impressive economic power.


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