25 Years on, World Happy to Do Business with Beijing's 'Butchers'


Twenty-five years after the West condemned the "butchers" who crushed protesters in Tiananmen Square, China's astonishing economic and military transformation means the world has largely set aside concerns on human rights as it courts the former pariah.

Outraged Western nations imposed economic sanctions and banned arms sales after troops killed hundreds of people during the night of June 3-4, 1989 as they cleared Beijing's streets of students agitating for democracy.

But then U.S. president George H.W. Bush -- a former ambassador to China who had worked to jump-start the relationship -- resisted calls for more sweeping punishment and secretly sent senior officials to Beijing to reassure supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.

His successor Bill Clinton -- whose 1992 campaign denounced the "Butchers of Beijing" -- initially tied China's trading status to progress on human rights, but the link was soon dropped.

"The dirty little secret is we were making some progress but the economic agencies... were not enthusiastic and undercut our policy, and president Clinton did not back up the State Department," said Winston Lord, who was the top State Department official on East Asia at the time.

"We had a split administration. The Chinese took advantage of that and therefore didn't move on human rights in any significant way," Lord told a recent congressional hearing. 

But Lord, who served as U.S. ambassador to Beijing until six weeks before the Tiananmen Square crackdown, said he understood other perspectives as trade with China carries "huge economic stakes" and contributes to U.S. jobs.

Contemporary China holds vastly more clout than the nation in 1989. After a brief dip in its growth rate in 1990, China's economy has grown more than 30-fold as it morphed into the world's hub for low-cost manufactured goods.

Foreign direct investment into China similarly stagnated from 1989 to 1991 but has rocketed every year since -- led by U.S. and European firms -- and is now 3,500 percent bigger than in the year of the crackdown. 

Not all has returned to normal in China's relationship with the world. Western nations and Japan hold regular human rights dialogues with China and refuse to sell it weapons, although France in the past has called for an end to the EU ban.


- Trade, not 'truth' -


Nevertheless China grows more assertive by the day. Since President Xi Jinping assumed office last year, China has increasingly pushed maritime claims against its neighbors. World leaders seek China's influence on issues as varied as the global economy, climate change, North Korea, Iran and Sudan.

"The Tiananmen thing has all but disappeared," said Warren Cohen, a professor of U.S. diplomatic history at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

"Every once in a while, human rights comes up, if there is an incident or somebody writes a story," he said. "But the clear message to the Chinese has been that the relationship is much more important to us than anything you do to your own people."

The United States routinely raises human rights concerns, issuing annual reports since the 1960s that assess every country's record -- and regularly criticize China. 

Leaders of the House of Representatives on Thursday held a ceremony to remember the Tiananmen Square dead, after passing a resolution urging China to end censorship over the crackdown.

"They want us to forget all this. But you cannot overcome the past by ignoring it, and so long as we stand together and never forget, the truth will always overcome the lie," House Speaker John Boehner said.

But since the late 2000s, China has stopped releasing high-profile dissidents as goodwill gestures ahead of summits. Instead, an increasingly confident Beijing retaliates harshly against foreign criticism. 

China cut off all high-level diplomatic contact with Norway after jailed pro-democracy writer Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. 

In normalizing trade relations, Clinton said the move was the best way to encourage "long-term sustainable progress" on human rights. 

But U.S. officials have said that China's record has worsened recently, with detentions of dissidents, constraints on minority groups and tightening controls ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary.

"One cannot make the assumption that an expanding economy will bring with it civil and political rights. I think China has shown manifestly that that's not the case," said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.

Lord, the former State Department official, called for Washington to keep pressing human rights but said it may be most effective to emphasize "safer" issues such as the environment, "given the fact that the regime in China puts its own preservation number one."

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