Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Managing a Massacre: The Ramifications of Tiananmen Square

The Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 1989, and the subsequent months of intimidation, deception and violence, shattered the façade of Chinese political solidarity and severely damaged Sino-American relations. The crackdown followed weeks of protests after the death of reformist leader Hu Yaobang, when tens of thousands of peaceful protesters gathered in Tiananmen Square to demand greater political freedom. On June 3rd – 4th, tanks rolled through the Tiananmen protesters, dashing popular hopes for political reform and crushing a burgeoning Sino-American relationship which had taken two decades to build. Shocked by the bloodshed and the blatant violation of democratic principles, U.S  officials struggled to balance personal agendas, humanitarian concerns and diplomatic necessities in a whirlwind of sanctions, threats, appeals, and misgivings.

Richard Solomon, who was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs in 1989, discusses the reactions of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker III as they attempted to save their political reputations without severing all ties to China. Former Congressman Stephen Solarz notes how many in Congress tried to leverage most-favored nation status on trade tariffs to get China to moderate its actions but how that ultimately led nowhere. Solomon was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in September 1996;  Congressman Solarz was interviewed by Kennedy, beginning in November 1996.

Read about Ambassador Lilley’s impressions on the scene in Beijing and other Moments on China.


“The situation there has turned pretty nasty”

Assistant Secretary Solomon

SOLOMON: I knew, of course, that Bush was very interested in China because of his diplomatic service there in 1974-75. At some point in May [1989], one of the senior Chinese leaders came to the United States and we learned that things were really starting to get hot because of ongoing demonstrations in Beijing…. I was still unconfirmed, but I was watching everything. So we knew that there was a lot happening there as well as in the Soviet Union [with the fight for independence within the various republics].  And then, a week before I was confirmed, Tiananmen happened….

I remember talking to Secretary Baker just as the CNN images of gunfire were showing up on the TV in our office. Just before Baker was having either a news conference or an encounter with the President, I had said, “Mr. Secretary, from what we are seeing on the television, the situation there has turned pretty nasty.”

The use of gunfire had occurred after weeks of stalemate between the demonstrators and the government; and the President had urged the visiting senior Chinese leader to show restraint. In that context the U.S.-China relationship basically fell apart. It didn’t take very long for me to see that I was likely to have very little work to do on China:  the shooting of the students, the suppression of the demonstration, had totally destroyed the base of political support in the U.S., in the Congress, for normal dealings with the Chinese leadership.

Basically, Tiananmen was an example of the leadership being caught up in the social and political forces generated by China’s dramatic economic growth, which by that time had been going on for about a decade. People could see the rapid growth, but from afar we were not aware of the internal strains related to income inequality and corruption.

The leadership was paralyzed for a while about how to deal with the situation, especially after the demonstrations began. They didn’t want to suppress the students and other demonstrators in front of the world media who had assembled in Beijing for the Gorbachev visit in May. Given Deng Xiaoping’s policy of kai fang, of opening China to the world, they were trapped in their own openness and visibility. Ultimately, the result of the openness and growth, ironically, was that it destroyed political support in the U.S. for the Chinese leadership.

“To hell with it”

Q: Were you looking for ways to repair the damage, to reopen dialogue?

SOLOMON: Well, basically what happened with China policy was that right after the shooting, the repression at Tiananmen, the President himself knew that he faced a deep political crisis. He, together with Baker, the Secretary of State, decided to immediately impose some sanctions on China because if they didn’t, Congress would have made the situation even worse…. Baker, unfortunately, phrased one of the sanctions in terms of “no high-level exchanges.”

What he had in mind was canceling the visit to China of then-Secretary of Commerce [Robert] Mosbacher, who was scheduled to go to go China as head of the U.S.-China Binational Commercial Commission. Baker didn’t mean to imply that all high-level contact be cut off, it was just these formal exchanges. But the press and Congress didn’t view it that way. Suddenly the impression was that the policy was to cut off all high-level contacts with the Chinese leadership.

My understanding is that the President got very upset at that implication; he felt that Baker had mishandled implementation of the sanctions policy. And Baker dropped the China policy account like a hot potato. I think he felt that he had mismanaged the response in terms of what the President wanted… and he, Baker, at that point was delighted not to have to deal with the China relationship, which he viewed as a political loser. So at that point, the State Department was basically out of the China business, except for the Deputy Secretary.

Q: I have the feeling that Baker and his almost palace guard wanted to look for winning things to deal with, and not to deal with other problems — this is a loser so to hell with it.   

SOLOMON: That was the standard wisdom, that Baker didn’t want to have to deal with losing issues or issues that would make him look bad. I was aware of that rumor as much as anyone, and in one or two instances I could see Baker deal with issues in a way that would make sure his personal credibility was not compromised. He willingly delegated to others issues that he didn’t view as winning.

But let me just say that on China policy, after Tiananmen and that first round of sanctions, I think that Kissinger and Nixon called Bush, the President, and said, “You can’t let the reaction you’re getting from fuzzy-headed liberals/bleeding hearts about the suppression of demonstrators destroy your/our China policy. You’ve got to work out with the Chinese an understanding of what has to be done to repair this relationship.”

“Coddling Dictators”

This situation trapped the President, and the way he tried to deal with it was via the secret mission of [at left, National Security Advisor Brent] Scowcroft, [Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence] Eagleburger, and others in July…. I think that secret mission was an effort by President Bush to tell the Chinese what had happened in the U.S. because of Tiananmen — that is, the disruption of political support in the United States for normal relations, and what would have to be done to try to repair the damage. But that trip was all organized out of the White House; we only learned of it later. And Baker, as I said, was delighted not to have to deal with it.

Q: Did you have a problem dealing with your people because of this freeze on Chinese-American relations?

SOLOMON: Our role was to prepare testimony for Eagleburger when he had to go up to Congress and try to defend the President’s limited sanctions policy. It was a miserable job for him because China policy at that point had become totally politicized. The Democrats — Senator Mitchell, Congresswoman Pelosi — were pushing the line that Bush was “coddling dictators,” was not hard enough in pushing the sanctions. Yet Eagleburger, for whom we helped prepare the testimony, believed there were good reasons for handling the situation the way we did. So it was a very difficult situation to manage so as not to destroy what was left of the China relationship.

In fact, I was asked in the summer of 1990 whether I would like to be Ambassador to China. This was when Jim Lilley was concluding his two-year tour as ambassador. I turned it down. I could see that the whole China relationship was frozen. Yet the notion…if you had told me in the ’70s when I was working for Kissinger that I would turn down an opportunity to be Ambassador to China, I would have said you were crazy. But after Tiananmen, I could see that the relationship was totally immobilized. You couldn’t do anything useful; all you could do was play defense with Congress.

“A Firestorm on the Hill”

Congressman Stephen Solarz

SOLARZ: I think the Sino-American relationship prior to Tiananmen was continually improving. There may have been some blips here and there, but basically, once the modernization program commenced, once many of the internal restrictions on the movement of people around the country and the like were lifted, once tens of thousands of Chinese students were permitted to come to the States to study, once barriers to foreign investment were lifted, as trade began to dramatically increase, the relationship between our two countries clearly was growing stronger across the board – varying from our commercial ties to an increasingly cooperative military relationship. But Tiananmen shattered all of that and sent the relationship into a tailspin….

First of all, there was a tremendous backlash in the Congress and a feeling that it was no longer appropriate to do business as usual with what many people began to refer to as “the butchers of Beijing.” This in turn led to an effort to impose sanctions against China. I recall in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen when pressures were rapidly building up for some expression of congressional concern that as we shaped our package of legislatively imposed sanctions – which included, for example, a suspension of the trade and development program assistance to China and a number of other things – that there were some suggestions at the time that we cut off MFN [Most-favored Nation status for lower trade tariffs], but I thought that would be going too far and managed in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen as the Congress moved to adopt the legislation to keep the MFN out of it.

Subsequently, in later years, whether or not to extend MFN to China and, if so, on what basis, became a major source of Congressional controversy and concern. But in the immediate aftermath, we were able to keep that out of the sanctions legislation that was adopted. It also led to a series of hearings on what had happened and its implications for American policy. My recollection is that Congressional attitudes were to some extent exacerbated by what appeared to be a relatively soft response to what had happened by the administration. Of course, when President Bush sent Deputy Secretary Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft on a secret mission to Beijing to talk with the Chinese leaders in spite of the fact that our formal policy was to suspend all high-level contacts, it created a bit of a firestorm on the Hill.

A Most-Favored Nation?

SOLARZ: There was no serious effort to force the administration to suspend our diplomatic relationship or to close down our embassy, for example. I think most people recognized that would be counterproductive. The issue fairly quickly became what should we do about MFN? Clearly, most-favored nation tariff status, given the level of Chinese exports to the United States and its importance to China in terms of their whole modernization program and hopes for economic development, constituted the major source of potential leverage the United States had over China. But that begged the question of what one could get for it.

Essentially, there were three schools of thought. One expressed by the administration was that cutting off, or conditioning, MFN would be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst, and that we would in any case be shooting ourselves in the foot by depriving American consumers of opportunities to purchase lower-priced Chinese goods or handicapping the efforts of American investors to invest in China since China could be expected to retaliate if we cut off MFN. Then there were those who argued that what happened at Tiananmen Square was so egregious that we had no moral alternative but to terminate MFN and it was inappropriate to provide this preferential tariff status to China even though MFN in effect was the tariff status we gave to just about every country in the world. Finally, there were those who tried to strike a middle ground (I was among them) who said that we ought to try to use China’s desire for MFN to enable us to leverage changes in China in terms of human rights by establishing some conditions for the renewal of MFN, which would give China an incentive to move in the direction that we wanted it to move in order to preserve the benefits of this tariff status.

My recollection is that the effort to take away MFN was consistently rejected, but legislation was adopted establishing conditions on MFN, but that was vetoed by the President and the veto was not overridden. So, it never became law until Clinton became President and he by executive order established conditions in the first year of his administration for the renewal of MFN. In the second year when he concluded that those conditions had not been met, and was confronted with the reality that he might have to terminate MFN, he changed the policy and decided to renew it anyway, on the grounds that we would have a better chance of achieving our objectives in the context of continuing MFN than in the context of cutting it off.

One of the things I recall very vividly about the effort to establish conditions on the renewal of MFN was a meeting in which I participated off the House floor with those Members of Congress who had expressed the greatest interest in this issue. It was really fascinating to observe the dynamics of this meeting. What fascinated me was that each person present at the meeting had their own particular hobby horse or issue as it were.

But the net result was a long list of conditions which it was most unlikely the Chinese would ever be able or willing to meet, thereby in a sense forsaking the leverage which the Chinese desire for MFN gave us. In other words, the concept of conditioning MFN made some sense, but to make it really work, one would need to have a fairly limited list of conditions which the Chinese government would conceivably be able or willing to meet. By developing a much longer list without really doing the hard work of establishing priorities, we ended up with a set of conditions which I feared, had they been enacted, would not have produced the changes we sought.