U.S. Policy Toward China Twenty Years After the Tiananmen CrackdownJun 6th, 2009 | By USAsialawNYU | Category: Features Printable format
On June 4, 2009, research fellow and China legal specialist, Elizabeth M. Lynch, attended the Congressional-Executive Commission on China’s hearing on the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen protests.
I was eleven years old in 1989, but I still remember being glued to the television that spring, watching the images from Beijing, not fully understanding but knowing, through the all-day news coverage, that it was somehow important. Later, the sight of throngs of people around the world peacefully protesting and asking for greater freedom would become more common, eventually culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall that November and the collapse of the Soviet Union soon after. But in May and June of 1989, it was all new and the eyes of the world were anxiously focused on China. No one expected, least of all the Chinese people, what happened next.
Last week, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) took us back to that period and examined the events in China during the spring of 1989. The panel included former Ambassador to China, the Honorable Winston Lord, U.S. China scholars Dr. Perry Link and Dr. Susan Shirk and Tiananmen activist Dr. Jianli YANG. Each spoke of the events leading up to the crackdown in June 1989; the courage of the students; the peacefulness of their protests; the support from all segments of society – workers, soldiers, parents, and even some Party members; and the drastic and deadly response of the Chinese government. Each noted that the crackdown was a turning point for China. Dr. Link focused on what he termed China’s “values vacuum” as a result of the Chinese government’s sole focus on economic development post-1989. Dr. Shirk discussed the lessons the Party learned after Tiananmen, namely its emphasis on unity among the highest ranking members and the need to keep the military loyal. Dr. Yang spoke of China’s path away from peaceful democracy since 1989, and Ambassador Lord spoke on the continued suppression of protests in China.
But the conversation quickly turned from the past to the future. How should the United States deal with China today? Given China’s past and current human rights record, its continued suppression of political reform, but at the same time, China’s importance in handling current global crises, what should today’s U.S.-China policy look like? Dr. Link emphasized the need for the United States to publicly articulate our values; even if the Chinese government responds negatively, the verbalization of what is important to us should not happen behind closed doors among diplomats. As an example, Dr. Link reminded the forum of the U.S. Embassy’s invitation to democracy activist Lizhi FANG to attend a dinner party with George H.W. Bush in February 1989, a month after Mr. Fang wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping requesting greater freedoms. While some criticized this action since the invitation resulted in Mr. Fang’s arrest, Dr. Link argued that this criticism is unjustified because maintaining our values, even in the face of China’s harsh reaction, should be part of our policy, and that the invitation to Mr. Fang was the right thing to do.
Dr. Yang agreed and even went further, arguing that part of the United States’ policy should be to nurture nascent democratic organizations in China. This troubled Dr. Shirk as being potentially detrimental to maintaining open communication with China. Dr. Shirk argued that U.S. support of China’s domestic organizations would prove counterproductive; the organizations would be seen as mere puppets of the United States, undercutting any progress they could make on their own. Instead, Dr. Shirk advocated for continuing to work with the Chinese government on developing a civil society and rule of law and recommended that Congress provide more funding for these efforts. Ambassador Lord advocated for stepping up the United States efforts on reaching the Chinese people directly through such channels as the internet, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia.
On a positive note, in response to one congressperson’s question as to whether anything has changed in China since the publication of Dr. Shirk’s 2007 book, China: Fragile Superpower, Dr. Shirk mentioned the easing of tensions between China and Taiwan, a change that she had not expected to come so quickly. However, she noted that in place of Taiwan, China’s approach to Tibet has become more severe and Tibet will likely become more of a hot-button issue in future U.S.-China relations.
Congress is not alone in trying to figure out the best approach to our relationship with China. On the twentieth anniversary of Tiananmen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a forceful statement requesting that China provide a public accounting of the number killed during the Tiananmen crackdown as well as release the Tiananmen protestors still imprisoned. But a few days later on ABC’s This Week, Secretary Clinton noted the complexity of U.S.-China relations and the difficulty the U.S. faces in discussing human rights with the Chinese. Interestingly, especially in light of Dr. Shirk’s comments on Tibet at the CECC hearing, during the This Week interview, Secretary Clinton discussed the issue of the U.S.’ call for greater religious freedom in Tibet and noted that it is a particularly thorny issue in U.S.-China relations.
In revisiting Tiananmen this year, I watched the footage from those fateful days in Beijing and I realized that the most important thing is that we do not forget the courage of those hundreds of thousands of Chinese who joined forces across social and economic lines for values that they believed in and held so dear that they were willing to put their lives at stake. I hope someday that the Chinese people on the mainland can know the bravery of their people and eventually share in the world’s admiration for their efforts.
To watch a recorded video of the CECC’s hearing, click here (video starts at 8 minutes 49 seconds).
For a great and moving documentary on the events before and after June 4, please click here for Frontline’s “The Tank Man.”
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