Tiananmen Square

The China Syndrome

Ten years of U.S. ambivalence left the door open for the Tiananmen Square tragedy. It is time to adopt a policy of principle.


Sun Hui was a freshman at Beijing University majoring in chemistry. He was not a member of the Chinese Communist Party, although his parents were. He had chosen instead to join with many of his classmates in the peaceful, nonviolent protest for democracy that began this year on April 18. In the early morning hours of June 4, he and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others were gunned down near Tiananmen Square by troops of the ironically misnamed People's Liberation Army firing automatic weapons. Their bodies were burned under the cover of darkness to destroy evidence of the massacre. We may never know for certain exactly how many died that bloody night.

The demonstrations were originally sparked by the death in mid-April of Hu Yaobang, a former party leader deposed by orthodox Marxists for being too soft on democracy. Sun had been an activist from the beginning, helping to organize the protesters into China's first independent student union. As crowds numbering first in the hundreds of thousands, and finally in the millions, took to the streets in support of their movement, the students were encouraged and launched a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of China. They also drew up a set of demands: an end to the widespread corruption in the government, a streamlining of the massive bureaucracy, and a more open political system. They vowed to continue their sit-in until the party leaders agreed to meet with them.

Sun had never visited the United States, indeed, had never been outside China. But, like his classmates, he was an avid listener of the Voice of America, had been inspired by quotations from Patrick Henry, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson, and had applauded when the "goddess of democracy"—modeled on the Statue of Liberty—was erected in Tiananmen Square. A living symbol of America's burgeoning influence in China, he was young, idealistic, Western-oriented, and hopeful of democratizing China by peaceful means.

Sun's real crime was that he looked beyond the present one-party dictatorship, whose misrule his people had suffered for decades, to a Chinese government that would be respectful of the wishes of its people. This was why Sun and his fellow students were first anathematized by the orthodox Marxists in command of the party as "counterrevolutionaries and hooligans," and then shot by the army. Sun Hui was 19 years old when he died.

The massacre was a double failure for America's China policy. Not only were Sun and his friends murdered for espousing our ideals, but they died at the hands of the same government to which the United States extended diplomatic recognition on January 1, 1979, and which this country has been supporting throughout the '80s with arms sales, military technology, most-favored-nation status, textile import agreements, government-subsidized grain sales low-interest-rate-loans through the World Bank and other international agencies, and numerous other forms of assistance.

In China, we come face to face with the deadly contradiction at the heart of U.S. efforts, in this postcommunist era, to wean communist states away from their addiction to Marxist-Leninist extremes. The democratic movement that our example helped inspire has been suppressed by the orthodox Marxists whose economy we helped to strengthen and whose army we helped to modernize.

The flames that turned the young freedom fighters into charred bones and ashes also left our China policy a smoldering ruin. We must think long and hard about what we have really been doing in that country and where we must go from here. We must consider whether the unequal conflict between the forces of democracy and despotism in the streets of Beijing could somehow have been averted and how to mitigate the campaign of terror now in full swing.

If Sun and his friends were expecting the United States to support the movement that its ideals had inspired, they must have been bitterly disappointed. For two-and-a-half weeks after the demonstrations began on April 18, President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker ducked questions from the press on the events in China. The Chinese leadership, astute at evaluating much more subtle signals, can only have interpreted this silence to mean that the U.S. administration considered China's handling of the student protests to be an "internal matter" that would not affect bilateral relations.

When Bush finally allowed himself a public comment on May 5, he may have made matters worse with an offhand remark that seemed to suggest that the heroic young student activists were merely unreasonable malcontents: "I have words of encouragement for freedom and democracy, wherever…[but] I wouldn't suggest that to any leadership, to any country, that they accept every demand by every group."

To a deeply divided Chinese leadership, split over the question of whether to work out an accommodation with the student demonstrators or to crush them, the message was clear: The United States was not prepared to offer any support, substantive or rhetorical, to those in China who were inspired by its ideals to demand fundamental freedoms and human rights. In their calculations of the cost of quashing the democracy movement, China's rulers could safely ignore the possibility of damage to their country's vital strategic and economic ties to the United States and the West.

As events in China took an increasingly ominous turn, neither the White House nor the State Department gave the Chinese leadership any cause to doubt its early assessment.

• On May 13, 2,000 students in Tiananmen Square began a hunger strike, and announced that they were prepared to die for democracy. The Bush administration had no comment.

• On May 20, the hardliners having won out, the Chinese leadership declared martial law in Beijing. Columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers began to pour into the city, only to be stopped in their tracks by tens of thousands of Beijing residents, who barricaded the streets with their own bodies. In the largest spontaneous demonstration in the history of the PRC, an estimated one million persons peacefully paraded through the streets of Beijing in support of the students' demands.

Secretary of State Baker's response made it clear that democracy and freedom in China had to take a back seat to stability and the status quo: "I don't think that we should in any way be seen to be somehow inciting to riot.…I don't think it is in the best interests of the United States for us to see significant instability" in China.

• On June 1, the Central Daily News, the official newspaper of the Nationalist Party of the Republic of China on Taiwan, published a news article asserting that an all-out assault on Beijing was imminent. Citing military intelligence sources, the report said that the Chinese leadership had ordered the army to retake Beijing at all costs and had authorized the use of deadly force against students and other demonstrators. This intelligence, which should have been available to senior personnel in the State Department and the White House, elicited no public expression of concern from either group.

• On June 4, the final bloody assault began. Again, Beijing's citizens tried to stop tanks and APCs with their massed bodies, only to be crushed under the treads of armored vehicles or killed by automatic weapons fire. The troops surrounded, then moved in on, the students encamped in Tiananmen Square, killing some and driving off the rest.

It was late in the day before Baker finally appeared before the press to make a brief statement. He deplored the outbreak of violence (without mentioning who was responsible) and called upon the two sides to peacefully settle their differences (without mentioning that one side was committed to the total destruction of the other). The message embedded in this minor masterpiece of moral equivalence was a familiar one: Massacre or no, preserving the cooperative relationship with the Chinese leadership remained paramount.

If the unfolding tragedy in China could not bring the Bush administration to reconsider the wisdom of preserving the status quo, the outraged reaction of the American public, as expressed by their elected officials, was less easily ignored. About to be outflanked on the right by Democratic opponents like Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.) and Rep. Steven Solarz (N.Y.), who threatened to draft their own harsh sanctions, President Bush during his June 5 press conference announced his own list. Upcoming official military visits were canceled, as well as several pending arms sales. All Chinese citizens in this country, including students participating in the official exchange program, would be eligible to have their visas extended for one year upon request. Humanitarian assistance would be offered to the Chinese Red Cross to help care for the wounded in Beijing.

Bush ruled out diplomatic or economic sanctions, however, expressing his view that they would be counterproductive. Borrowing a line from Henry Kissinger, he cautioned against reacting to the events in China with emotional outbursts. He made it clear that, however much he might sympathize in the abstract with the tragic fate of the students, realpolitik argued for the preservation of the cooperative relationship between Washington and a stable Beijing regime.

Bush's failure to resolutely condemn China's actions, and follow that with sanctions that have teeth, is hardly congruent with our usual treatment of repressive regimes. From Cuba to Nicaragua, South Korea to the Philippines, the United States has challenged governments disaffected from their people to hold free elections or otherwise pursue democratic reforms or face sanctions and a cutoff of aid.

If a dictator, of whatever political stripe, turned his army loose on unarmed, peaceful protesters in his capital, massacring thousands, does anyone doubt that our ambassador would be called home, aid cut off, and at least a partial trade embargo imposed? And if the dictator in question further launched a ferocious nationwide campaign of repression against those who sympathized with his victims, might we not seriously consider breaking off diplomatic relations?

Some have suggested that Bush's delayed and feeble reaction may, in part, be a consequence of a bad case of "clientitis," acquired during his years as America's representative in China in the mid-'70s. His first overseas destination after being sworn in as president was Beijing, where he renewed his longstanding relationship with China's aging communist leaders. But when those same leaders deliberately insulted him by detaining the prominent dissident Fang Lizhi, whom Bush had invited to dinner, the president of the United States at first kept silent about this affront, complaining only a day later after embarrassing accounts of the incident had appeared in the press.

Bush is not the first president to treat China as an exception when it comes to otherwise evenhandedly applied norms of human rights. Roberta Cohen, deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Carter Administration, has recently documented how even gross Chinese violations of basic rights were glossed over or ignored by all four of Bush's immediate predecessors. Like Bush, Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and even Reagan exempted China from universally accepted norms because they had been led to place an extraordinarily high valuation on good relations with a stable Beijing regime.

No foreign policy expert has done more to promote the unique importance of the U.S.-Chinese political and strategic relationship than one of its original architects, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. "The stakes could not be higher," Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post in the aftermath of the massacre. "China's huge size, vast and diverse population and the talent of its people make it an indispensable component of global and particularly Asian stability. When it is removed from the scales they tip to extremes." Were U.S.-China relations to chill, or China to collapse in turmoil, he argued, U.S. interests in half a dozen countries would be threatened, from the Soviet Union in the north to Kampuchea in the south.

The problem with Kissinger's apocalyptic predictions is that they are not borne out by recent history. During the Cultural Revolution, China simply disappeared from the international scene for several years. Relations with the United States were not merely cool, they were in suspended animation. Yet, contra Kissinger, Moscow did not grow more belligerent toward the West (although it did propose a preemptive strike on China's missile fields), Pyongyang did not launch an attack on South Korea, and Japan did not reconsider its relationship with the United States.

On the other hand, at the very time when Kissinger was industriously weaving his shuttle over the loom of U.S.-China relations, Beijing continued to vigorously support North Vietnam's war of conquest against the south. Indeed, the Chinese, who denied at the time to the world (and to Henry Kissinger) that they had any troops in Vietnam, have recently admitted that over 300,000 men of the People's Liberation Army served alongside their fraternal socialist allies in the struggle against American imperialism.

Even Kissinger's concern about China's diminished clout in the current negotiations over the future of Kampuchea seems overstated. The preoccupation of the main foreign backer of the notorious Khmer Rouge with internal strife will surely facilitate, not impede, an agreement acceptable to all parties, helping to ensure that the Cambodian people will not again be brutalized by Pol Pot's thugs.

Hyperbolic assessments of China's foreign influence originate in exaggerated estimates of its strength. The myth that has grown up around China, centered on its "huge size and vast and diverse population," disguises the scrawny reality of a poor, underdeveloped nation. China has a per capita income of less than $350, a gross national product less than West Germany's, a foreign trade less than Switzerland's, and fewer nuclear warheads than either Britain or France. Beijing governs a territory almost as large as the United States but possesses only limited arable land and less-than-abundant natural resources. It commands a population in excess of one billion, but most of these are unlettered villagers crammed into the eastern quarter of the country working handkerchief-sized plots of land. The government itself values its multitudes so little that it is cruelly trying to reduce them.

China's past glories or future prospects also bedazzle and confuse foreign-policy makers. The Middle Kingdom of the 18th century was strong enough to cow its immediate neighbors into becoming tributary states, but Mongolia, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand have for the better part of a century been able to safely ignore Beijing's edicts. In 50 years, China may once again become a world power to be reckoned with. At present, however, China is neither another Soviet Union, nor another Japan. It is a dragon of papier-mâché and poster paints. It is India on the China Sea.

No one political party or group in the United States has a monopoly on the China myth. Liberals and conservatives alike subscribe to the idea that China is the third power in the world, almost (but not quite) a superpower. This ill-founded consensus goes a long way toward explaining why, since its crafting in the late 1970s, our China policy has been so remarkably stable. And it explains why the reaction of the foreign policy establishment of this country to the Beijing massacre can best be characterized as limp acquiescence.

Many liberals, especially those who have never quite overcome their early euphoria over the "New" China, have adopted a stance of respectful benevolence toward that country. Joined by many moderates of both parties, they have been convinced that drawing China's leaders closer to the United States, encouraging the process of economic reform, and peacefully exchanging goods and people would help China bloodlessly evolve away from a one-party state toward a true socialism.

In this scenario, the Chinese Communist Party would gradually reform itself, abandoning such practices as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, mass political campaigns, and the persecution of intellectuals, until it came to resemble the socialist or liberal democratic parties of Europe. In the meantime, open criticism of Beijing was viewed as counterproductive because it would lead to a retreat from America's salubrious embrace. This was the theory that Bush was invoking when he stated at his June 5 press conference, "The process of democratization of communist societies will not be a smooth one, and we must react to setbacks in a way which stimulates rather than stifles progress toward open and representative systems."

Conservatives accepted the necessity of cultivating good relations as the price of playing the China card. Though not eager to actually enter into an alliance with a regime they recognized as repressive, they saw in the four-million-man (later three-million-man) Chinese army a useful counterweight to the Soviet military machine. Even the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1980, when frontline units of the People's Liberation Army were badly mauled by the Vietnamese border militia, could not shake this belief.

Conservatives also applauded China's willingness to allow the United States to set up three electronic monitoring stations near the Soviet border, which provide vital telemetry data on Soviet missile launches to U.S. (and Chinese) intelligence agencies. Open criticism of Beijing's rule by conservatives has been muted for fear of jeopardizing this strategic relationship in general and our intelligence-gathering capabilities in particular. Bush and his advisers obviously concur and have thus refrained from endorsing more rapid democratization in China.

Many of these assumptions have been shaken by recent events. Who now, after the slaughter in Beijing, will argue that the People's Republic of China is evolving away from a one-party, Leninist state? With the secret police even now terrorizing democratic activists and advocates of reform in a campaign of mass repression, the party is tightening, not relaxing, its grip on the Chinese people. Who now, after Gorbachev's tête-à-tête with Deng and the reestablishment of party-to-party ties between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties, can convincingly argue that China would be a reliable ally in the event of hostilities, or that our intelligence stations will last one day longer than the Chinese find their telemetry data useful?

What of the fear that the bear and the dragon might resume their clumsy two-step of the 1950s? The summit meeting signaled not so much a rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing as a recognition that neither country should pose a military threat to the other. Both leaderships realize that the continued success of their "restructuring" efforts is critically dependent upon their ability to attract technology, credits, and investment from the West. Since neither has much to offer the other in this regard, too chummy a display of socialist solidarity would only raise apprehensions in the West and be counter to both their interests.

Equally unlikely—and much less threatening to U.S. strategic interests—is a turn to Japan. Memories of the Japanese occupation of coastal China in World War II, which was replete with such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking, still outrage the Chinese. Many also fear a latter-day version of the "Great East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" and so deal only reluctantly with Japanese companies.

Given that China is an underdeveloped country, dependent on the West—and this means primarily the United States—for science and technology, markets, and capital, we have far more leverage vis-à-vis Beijing than is generally realized. Had the U.S. government spoken out more forthrightly before the June 3 crackdown came, the public bloodbath that stunned the world might well have been averted. If it speaks out strongly now, and backs words with deeds, the ongoing campaign of mass repression may be mitigated.

President Bush should make it far clearer than he has to date that the United States identifies with, sympathizes with, and will, where possible, aid those in China who struggle against totalitarianism and for democratic values and human rights. Perhaps Bush could pick a university forum—Notre Dame, where former President Jimmy Carter foolishly decried "an inordinant fear of communism" in 1977, would do nicely—for a major address on the subject.

Bush might then paraphrase the protagonist's parting soliloquy in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath: "Wherever men and women oppose tyranny and reach for freedom, America's heart and soul will be there. Wherever men and women risk everything for a chance to control their own destinies, America's prayers and passion will be there. And wherever men and women are shot down in the streets or run over by tanks for peacefully requesting the freedom that should be their birthright, America's outrage will be manifest."

Another way to honor the courage and idealism so magnificently displayed in Beijing would be for the president to participate in a wreath-laying ceremony for those who died. A good place for this would be the small park across from the Chinese embassy in Washington, which has been named the Tiananmen Heroes Park. A replica of the Chinese Statue of Liberty has been on display there since June. It should be made permanent.

Since President Bush has stated that we cannot have normal relations with China until the killing stops, we should bring Ambassador James Lilly home to underline this point. Only when the Beijing regime has declared an end to its current campaign of repression and lifted martial law should he return to China.

The United States should also suspend its textile agreements with China, under which that country's state-owned mills have access to the U.S. market. Cheap clothes can be supplied by a dozen countries; there is no need to source them in China. Manufacturers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, to name just two, can supply clothes of better quality at the same price. Quotas that favor China currently prevent them from doing so. A new Chinese quota can be renegotiated by the ambassador after he returns to Beijing, if we decide to continue this distortion in the free market at all.

Those who counsel a do-nothing approach argue that there is no action we can take that will injure the Chinese leaders responsible for the massacre more than it injures the Chinese people. But this is not true. We can identify those who issued the order to fire on unarmed students—from Deng Xiaoping, Yang Shangkun, and Li Peng down to the commander of the 27th Army and his officers—and publicly declare them personae non gratae. Permanently barring 84-year-old Deng from visiting the United States will probably not adversely affect his travel plans, but it will cause him and his colleagues to lose face.

Beijing's leadership should also be put on notice that continued repression will cost them the permanent loss of the services of tens of thousands of their most talented people. Congress has already passed legislation extending until 1993 the visas of Chinese studying in the United States, allowing them to qualify for legal residency without returning to China unless the president certifies that it is safe for them to return. The United States will no longer act as a surrogate emigration enforcement agency of the Chinese government by forcing students who have completed their studies here to return to China.

More important still is our policy toward Hong Kong. The Thatcher government has stood silently by as, one by one, the supposed "guarantees" of a special status for Hong Kong have disappeared, and it has made no provision for those who prefer to live under a democratic regime to move to Britain. The United States should step into the breach, opening its doors to Hong Kong's business and professional groups.

As now written, our immigration laws make it difficult for any except those who already have family members in the United States to come here. Congress can correct this imbalance by further increasing the number of visas available to those with the talent and education to make a real contribution to American society and by creating a category for business people from Hong Kong and elsewhere who, through their investments and business acumen, will add to the dynamism of the American economy.

Our asylum policy with respect to Chinese nationals in the United States must be adjusted to reflect the renewed pervasiveness of political persecution in China. Those who have compelling reasons to fear return to the PRC include students who have been videotaped taking part in anti-government rallies in this country, diplomatic staff and their families who can no longer serve a government that brutalizes its own people, and young parents who wish to decide for themselves whether to have a second child, without the threat of forced abortion or sterilization. Chinese who express fear of persecution should be given the benefit of the doubt as their claims are weighed against the protests of a Chinese leadership that is shamelessly propagating the Big Lie in the aftermath of the Beijing massacre.

Even more important than official statements and sanctions are our individual actions. If all of those with interests in China, from private citizens to large corporations, suspended their activities as long as martial law and the purge of democratic activists continued, I believe that the worst would soon be over.

With the first estimates of the economic damage caused by the unrest coming in, and with its international reputation irreparably tarnished, Beijing is nervously watching the United States to see if further sanctions will be forthcoming. The official newspaper, the People's Daily, sounded almost plaintive in its June 13 editorial: "We hope the U.S. side will emphasize the overall situation of Chinese-American relations…stop interfering in China's internal affairs and not do anything to hurt bilateral relations." In other words, please avert your eyes while we crush the remains of the prodemocracy movement.

We must act now and not be put off by official Chinese bluff and bluster about meddling in their "internal affairs." Premier Li Peng has been shown on Chinese TV congratulating a group of soldiers on their suppression of "counterrevolutionaries and hooligans." Deng Xiaoping, who has revealed himself to be a ruthless dictator in the Stalinist mold, has ordered the students who led the movement for democracy to surrender or be tracked down.

Now that most foreigners have left the country and TV cameras are no longer trained on Tiananmen Square, the purge is in full swing. Estimates that 10,000 arrests have already been made and that several dozen people have been shot are surely on the low side. Professor Juergen Domes, West Germany's most renowned sinologist, estimates that as many as 200,000 students and workers will eventually be caught up in the sweeps of the state security forces. If the past is any guide, many of their lives will be forfeit to the forces of Marxist reaction.

As in America two centuries ago, the tree of liberty in China is being nourished by the blood of patriots. If, at no risk to our own security, we can limit the number of human beings that the Chinese Communist Party turns into fertilizer, however, we are surely obligated to do so.

Contributing Editor Steven W. Mosher is Bradley Resident Scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He is on sabbatical from the Claremont Institute, where he is director of Asian studies.