Your IP access to will expire on June 15

To ensure uninterrupted reading, please contact Rachel Mines, sales director, at

Shadow Government

China’s Tiananmen Square cover-up won’t last forever

By Will Inboden This week much of the world remembers the Tiananmen Square massacre from twenty years ago. Unfortunately this remembrance will not take place where it matters most: in China itself.  To be sure, those Chinese citizens whose family members or friends were killed on June 3 and 4, or imprisoned or exiled thereafter, have ...

By Will Inboden

This week much of the world remembers the Tiananmen Square massacre from twenty years ago. Unfortunately this remembrance will not take place where it matters most: in China itself. 

To be sure, those Chinese citizens whose family members or friends were killed on June 3 and 4, or imprisoned or exiled thereafter, have not forgotten. But the Chinese government continues to deny that it murdered hundreds if not thousands of its citizens, bans public discussion of the protests, and suppresses independent information sources such as internet sites, international media, even Twitter (!) that might mention it. The official denial and censorship has largely served the government’s purpose: most Chinese people are unaware of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and those comparative few who do know of it are coerced into silence.

Tiananmen is not just one tragedy but several. There is the tragedy of the bloodshed itself, and then the tragedy of the government’s suppression of history. One distinction of a healthy society is how it treats its past. Every nation creates its own myths, but a confident and free nation will be open about its history, and will allow all of its people — especially dissenters — to examine, debate, contend with, and continually reinterpret the past as new evidence comes to light, all in an ongoing search for truth. An insecure and closed nation will distort its history, and use the past as a crude instrument to control its people in the present.

For China, Tiananmen also represents the enduring tragedy of what might have been. Former Tiananmen demonstrator and recent political prisoner Yang Jianli describes this in a provocative lament on the counterfactual question: what if instead of his being deposed, Communist Party Secretary General Zhao Ziyang’s calls for political liberalization and reduced corruption had been adopted in 1989? What if, instead of massacring, imprisoning, and otherwise silencing the protestors, the PRC had heeded their calls for reform? No one can know with certainty, but it is likely that had this path been followed, China today would know the same economic success, along with greater internal stability, less corruption, more personal freedoms, and a more responsible international posture.

Finally, there is also the tragedy of the West’s response, especially the United States. Though international condemnation was vocal and widespread, it was also transient. Under Congressional pressure, the Bush 41 administration also imposed an embargo on further arms sales to China (which soon would become geopolitically obsolete anyway with the end of the Cold War and the obviation of the need for China to help the United States counter the Soviet bloc). But more than any particular policy measure in the wake of the Tiananmen crackdown, the PRC leadership craved international legitimacy and respect. This they received when the Bush administration sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on a secret mission to Beijing in July 1989 (just over a month after the massacre), and on a repeat visit in December 1989. Both trips were intended to reassure the PRC leadership of America’s continued desire to maintain strong relations with China, and to smooth over and move beyond the momentary friction resulting from the Tiananmen crackdown. Other Western nations soon followed this lead, exemplified by British Prime Minister John Major (with the agreement of the Bush administration) travelling to Beijing in 1991, the first European leader to do so after June 1989.

The Bush administration based these decisions at the time on the plausible geopolitical calculation that a combination of international engagement and continued economic reforms would lead China inexorably to adopt political liberty and become a peaceful and responsible global power. Yet, while plausible at the time, with the hindsight of two decades, this strategy — which Jim Mann aptly names the "China Fantasy" — has not vindicated itself. Just ask any senior Obama administration official today who is trying fervently to persuade China to quit propping up its reckless nuclear client state of North Korea.  Or any of the brave Chinese dissenters (some of them now imprisoned) who have signed the Charter 08 petition which asks in part, "Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?" Or in the cheeky-but-telling comment of a Chinese business leader who recently spoke in London on prospects for political reform in China: "If you want to test whether China is truly free or not, just walk into the middle of Tiananmen Square and say the words ‘Falun Gong’."

Yet while the Bush 41 administration’s embrace of Beijing in the aftermath of Tiananmen represents a significant missed window of opportunity, it bears remembering that there are notable limits on what outside nations can do to change China. China will determine its own future, just as China will have to come to terms with its own past. But this does not mean that outside nations have no influence. They can help shape the strategic environment in which China operates, and help determine the external incentives that will inform the choices China makes. And they can pursue a policy of engagement which genuinely "engages" with all important actors in China — not only the government but also political and religious reformers, who often request that they not be neglected by the West.

China today is vastly stronger, wealthier, more confident, and more consequential than it was two decades ago — as Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s visit this week only further demonstrates. International leaders need to work with China. But in doing so need to remember that the PRC government is not the only Chinese voice to listen to and work with.

Last weekend’s Financial Times carried a fascinating interview with Bao Tong, a reform-minded ally of Zhao Zhang in 1989 who was purged from the Party leadership and remains the senior-most official imprisoned in the wake of Tiananmen. From house-arrest in his Beijing apartment, Bao closed the interview with these words:

China has almost erased the memory of Tiananmen by making it illegal to talk about what happened. But there are miniature Tiananmens in China every day, in counties and villages where people try to show their discontent and the government sends 500 policemen to put them down. This is democracy and law with Chinese characteristics…. I believe there will be real democracy in China sooner or later, as long as there are people who want to be treated equally and have their rights respected.

It will rely on our own efforts, it will depend on when we, the Chinese people, are willing to stand up and protect our own rights.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

Tag: China

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola