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In 1989, it was Tiananmen Square. In 2020, world’s Covid fury could isolate China

In 1989, China was in the middle of economic reforms and was affected by the world's reaction to Tiananmen Square, which included economic sanctions.

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New Delhi: Reports have emerged that a classified Chinese government report has warned the country’s top leaders, including President Xi Jinping, about an upcoming “Tiananmen-like global backlash” against China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

The reference is to the international sanctions China faced after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when relations with the Western world substantially deteriorated. A series of economic and diplomatic sanctions were imposed, key international financial institutions suspended lending and the US and its allies encouraged several of its businesses to reconsider their ties with the Communist republic.

While the economic relationship between China and the West was eventually restored, on a strategic level, Tiananmen fundamentally reversed the post-1969 US-China rapprochement put in place by US President Richard Nixon.

Nixon had amended US-China ties, resulting in the two countries seeing nearly two decades of growing military cooperation. However, the transfer of military equipment from the US to China remains suspended till date following the 1989 episode.

ThePrint revisits the events of that year and what followed.

Also read: Trump, Pompeo continue to blame Wuhan lab for virus but US agencies are less convinced

China condemned by West, but also found supporters

In April 1989, tens of thousands of Chinese students marched to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand greater economic and political reforms. The tensions between the protestors and the regime continued to grow, and by June, the Chinese government ordered its troops to violently squash the protests. On 4 June, the army killed a number of protestors and blocked their advance in central parts of Beijing. Reports on the death toll range from several hundreds to several thousands of people.

When George H.W. Bush, who was the US President at the time, heard about the massacre, he said he was “moved” and denounced China for using military action. UK’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that she was “appalled by the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed people”.

Similarly, West Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and Sweden all issued sharp statements deploring the shooting of demonstrators by the Chinese military.

Internationally, the United Nations’ Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said that the UN was concerned about developments in China, and the global body adopted a resolution — titled “Situation in China” — which expressed its concern about the implications on human rights going ahead.

On the other hand, some countries such as Pakistan, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, North Korea and Cuba extended their support for China and denounced the protestors. And while the Soviet Union did not make an official comment back then, its state news channel gave sketchy accounts of the massacre and did not mention tanks having attacked pro-democracy protestors.

Also read: China is drawing all the flak, but is India controlling its wet markets?

US Congress led economic attack

The brunt of the international response was led and coordinated by the US, and more specifically the Congress — the country’s legislature.

Richard C. Bush, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote that the Congress of the time felt that President Bush’s administration “was too tepid in its response”. Later research suggests that Bush was trying to maintain US relations with the Chinese Communist Party, regardless of gross human rights abuses.

Thus, Congress decided to take matters in its own hands and launched a series of harsh sanctions on China.

“In July 1989, the House of Representatives included a package of sanctions on China in a broader bill. These banned or restricted arms sales, crime control equipment, and technology transfers, and shifted the U.S. government’s stance to restrict loans to China by international financial institutions. Included was authority for the president to waive the sanction if it was in the “national security interests” of the United States, a pretty high standard. The Senate passed its version of the bill in early 1990, weakening the waiver authority to U.S. “national interests” only. The bill soon became law,” wrote Richard C Bush.

Then, by 1991, another bill was passed in the Congress that linked China’s “human rights, economic, and proliferation policies” to the annual extension of the “most-favoured-nation” (MFN) trading status extended to it. The MFN is a trading provision that allowed Chinese firms to export their goods to US markets without having to pay additional tariffs.

Similarly, other US allies were also encouraged to implement similar sanctions on China.

Also read: Covid has brought back Chinese whispers in Sri Lanka, Nepal. Is India listening?

Restored ties with the West

By the time Tiananmen happened, China had been undergoing various forms of economic reforms for almost a decade. The Tiananmen episode and the global backlash reversed that. Meanwhile, China also closed itself to the world for the next few years, and foreign investment into China declined rapidly.

By the mid-1990s, things had begun to change again. Western states and their multinational firms had now begun to forge an entirely new kind of economic relationship with the Chinese state, in the hope that this would eventually lead to China becoming more democratic in due course.

However, a 2018 cover story in The Economist indicates that the West’s long-term bet on China has fundamentally failed.

“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West welcomed the next big communist country into the global economic order. Western leaders believed that giving China a stake in institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) would bind it into the rules-based system set up after the second world war,” the report said.

“They hoped that economic integration would encourage China to evolve into a market economy and that, as they grew wealthier, its people would come to yearn for democratic freedoms, rights and the rule of law,” it added.

But these hopes don’t seem have materialised. One of the telling indicators has been the pro-democracy protests that disrupted Hong Kong through 2019, impacting its standing as China’s economic capital. Started by students, the protests rapidly expanded to include many citizens, who have denounced mainland China’s attempts to control the special administrative region, largely considered more liberal.

A little more than 30 years after Tiananmen, China is now the second-largest economy, the world’s most vital trading partner — and still deeply authoritarian.

Also read: China replaces top Hong Kong official in first big reshuffle since pro-democracy protests


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