The Other Tiananmen Papers

A ChinaFile Conversation

In the wake of the lethal use of force by China’s military against demonstrators in Tiananmen Square and citizens of Beijing on June 4, 1989, the United States and other governments were confronted with a series of vexing moral and policy questions. What to say publicly and how to say it? What to convey privately to the Chinese leadership and through what channels? How to balance the immediate moral indignation with consideration of longer-term national interests? What to do about the extensive set of linkages between the U.S. (and other nations) and China’s Party-governmental authorities and military—as well as the extensive ties among private sector actors? Should foreign citizens be evacuated? Should official exchanges be frozen or terminated, or should doors and private channels of communication be left open? What sanctions should be enacted to penalize China’s government without hurting the Chinese people? How broadly should such steps be coordinated among foreign governments, how many would cooperate, and was the reaction in the West shared by governments in Asia and elsewhere? What to do about Chinese abroad who did not wish to return to China under current circumstances?

I had always wondered about the internal deliberations inside the U.S. government, and with China’s government, following Tiananmen. On a recent trip to lecture at Texas A&M University, I visited the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library to read through the relevant declassified White House documents. I took photographs of those that I deemed most pertinent to reconstructing how President Bush and other senior officials assessed the situation and decided to proceed in the weeks and months ahead. Not included in this selection is an enormous file of so-called “sit reps” (situation reports) from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and intelligence agencies in Washington covering the periods of the April 15-June 4 demonstrations and the post-suppression climate. I only selected documents that dealt with the U.S. Government response to the events.

As the documents reveal, President Bush initially made the decision to send his National Security Advisor General Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on a secret trip to Beijing to engage Deng Xiaoping directly, after Bush’s attempts to reach Deng via telephone hotline were rebuffed. As a way of marking the 30th anniversary of that secret trip and this decisive moment in U.S.-China relations, ChinaFile has published the documents in full and invited U.S. diplomats and national security officials who have covered China, as well as several longtime observers of the bilateral relationship, to read the documents and reflect on their significance. I prefer to let the documents speak for themselves, but I nevertheless join the Conversation below, with a couple brief observations of my own. —David Shambaugh


To me, two unexpected elements emerge.

First, the documents clearly reveal the overwhelming realpolitik calculations and desire by President Bush personally to “preserve” the U.S.-China relationship at all costs. These documents illustrate the President’s higher regard for the importance of the relationship, over penalizing the Chinese authorities for their actions, and hence his obsession with getting the relationship “back on track.” Also surprising to me was Bush’s self-regard for his insights into China and his understanding of its history, owing to his time as Liaison Office representative in Beijing from 1974 to 1975, as well as his fawning language of personal “friendship” with Deng.

This was a turning point in the history of China and U.S.-China relations, and Bush did not hesitate to choose the side of national interests over moral indignation or squeezing the Chinese Communist regime harder so that it might actually collapse or be overthrown. Oddly, there does not appear to have been any second-guessing of this approach in the administration over subsequent months as the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were being toppled by their citizens one after another during the second half of 1989. Bush and other senior U.S. officials praised and encouraged the collapse of communism there, but not in China.

Secondly, also surprising to me was Deng Xiaoping’s straightforward accusation (to Scowcroft at the July 2 meeting in the Great Hall of the People) that it was the American side that had been a principal source of the “counter-revolutionary rebellion” and it would be up to the U.S. side to “untie the knot.” Deng made many other stark statements and accusations in this meeting. Scowcroft had gone to Beijing in the hopes of establishing a pathway through which the Chinese leadership could climb out of the traps they had laid and were in. Instead, Deng turned the tables on him, accusing the U.S. of fomenting the demonstrations and, thus, making it responsible for healing the damaged relationship!

Thirdly, the White House documents do not reveal any attempts to coordinate reactions and policies with allies or other governments. It was surprising not to find a flurry of cables, phone calls, and presidential letters to other G-7 partners in the aftermath of Tiananmen and in advance of their July 16-19 summit in Paris (although the Summit did produce a statement on China). For a president who placed such emphasis on consulting allies and other heads of state personally, this is a surprising (non) finding.

There are numerous other revelations contained in these documents, which others can comment on, but these surprised me.

As a scholar, it’s exciting to peer into one of the seminal moments in the U.S.-China relationship. Many of the problems we face today germinated in this period. But, as a former National Security Council official, I know how deeply unfair it is to judge crisis decisions from afar. It’s impossible for outsiders to appreciate the internal policy mood and debates, the communications problems, the bureaucratic politics, and the myriad pressures stemming from the latter.

Nonetheless, these documents leave the following three impressions.

First, from the days just following Tiananmen, President Bush was personally driving U.S. policy; there is scant evidence of inter-agency deliberations among his top cabinet officials. Bush clearly had very strong views about the need to preserve the U.S.-China relationship despite the extreme violence of Tiananmen. The documents reveal a president sensitive to China’s internal contradictions and the Communist Party’s history.

Perhaps most interesting is that Bush’s determination—and he was clearly determined—wasn’t grounded in realpolitik logic but rather in his personal views and experiences. He didn’t argue Washington needed China to balance Soviet power or continued access to China’s market. As reflected in his private letters to Deng Xiaoping and Brent Scowcroft’s words to Deng, Bush held an intrinsic commitment to this relationship; he believed it was inherently good for the United States. In retrospect, that view was as brave as it was risky.

Second, the documents highlight one of the fundamental questions at the heart of U.S.-China interactions: Who holds the balance of influence and leverage?

The documents suggest that Washington wanted a return to stable and positive relations more than Beijing. The White House made numerous efforts: a secret trip, multiple letters, the briefing after Bush’s summit with Gorbachev. Why did Washington work so hard to restore ties? Beijing clearly wanted a resumption of World Bank loans and removal on other sanctions. If China regressed, it would have paid dearly. So, was America too ardent a suitor?

Also, did this have lasting consequences? One wonders: Was China’s consistent preference for dealing with the White House and the National Security Council born in these days? Did the U.S. belief it needed to avoid empowering hardliners in China and isolating China abroad hand China leverage? Has all this reassurance paid off for Washington? Which raises the structural question: Does U.S. reassurance of China have enduring value?

Lastly, the documents demonstrate that Chinese leaders, even in the face of immense domestic pressure, can be eminently practical. In December 1989, the committed Leninist Li Peng deferred on ideological posturing when meeting Scowcroft and talked about practical steps to rebuild relations, including resolving the situation of Fang Lizhi. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen’s conversations with Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger are a classic example of hands-on problem solving. Qian focused on building a road-map of parallel—but not overtly linked—actions that would lead to resuming diplomatic and economic cooperation. Qian wasn’t preoccupied with lecturing and posturing, but with solving problems. Wouldn’t it be great to have Qian around today?

Tiananmen was clearly a terrible Chinese tragedy, but these documents are not about that tragedy. They are about the difficulty of fashioning an effective American response that does not bow to the impulse of retributive emotion, but that at once honors America’s example and principles, furthers her strategic interests, and pushes for realistic, if incremental, progress.

Crafting wise foreign policy is not easy in such circumstances. Reading these documents on the heels of George H.W. Bush’s passing only deepened my respect for his grave sense of responsibility, the clarity of his leadership, and especially his determination to do what he believed was right, even at political cost.

On June 4, 1989, together with millions of others, I watched the Tiananmen massacre unfold on television. A student of Soviet bureaucratic politics at Johns Hopkins SAIS at the time, I was focused on the Chinese leadership’s decision-making and its series of obvious mistakes. Even amid this clear setback for progress, I nevertheless felt that the U.S. response should avoid making things worse and should hold out hope for the future. While Tiananmen was clearly a watershed in China’s development, laying bare the cold determination of the Chinese Communist Party to hold onto political power at any cost, the rest of the world was in a delicate state. The border fence between Hungary and Austria was being dismantled, and there were tectonic forces at work in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and Western response to Tiananmen would reverberate beyond East Asia, and the needle had to be threaded carefully.

Bush emphasized the complexity of the situation in China and warned against an emotional U.S. response. He took clear ownership of his approach, citing his steps to make clear our condemnation, but pushing back against calls for more sweeping measures that might tip the balance with the Chinese leadership into irretrievable territory. Some will assess that he was overly worried about a Chinese lapse into isolationism, that he exaggerated the potential costs of a prolonged period of estrangement. But it is not at all clear that a “tougher response” would have achieved any positive purpose. Bush, who was in a position to know more than most, felt strongly that an overreaction by the U.S. would indeed make the situation worse.

I subsequently worked on some tough foreign policy challenges with odious regimes in my diplomatic career and constantly grappled with the tension between principled opposition to the internal actions of another government and the need to work with that government to meet U.S. goals. The tension here between calls to do more to punish the Chinese leadership (to “express this nation’s outrage” per journalist Helen Thomas) and Bush’s belief that it was in U.S. interests to maintain a constructive relationship with Beijing despite our severe misgivings over its actions, is palpable. I feel proud my country struggled mightily and earnestly to try to do the right thing in the face of tragedy. I hope we will have the determination and wisdom to continue to do so.

Over the years, the judgment has taken hold that President George H.W. Bush and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft were far-sighted leaders, cautious realists who carefully gauged America’s long-term interests. Indeed, that perception might arguably fit the period from 1990 to 1992, as the Bush administration deftly coped with the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany, and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

But when it came to dealing with China in 1989, the judgment is simply wrong. Bush and Scowcroft were preoccupied with trying to preserve the status quo—that is, the American geopolitical relationship with China that had been endured since the Nixon administration. This wasn’t realism; Bush and Scowcroft were, indeed, reflexively romantic about the good old days.

The declassified documents do not contain stunning new revelations that would transform our understanding of how the Bush White House responded to Tiananmen. They flush out and add some fascinating new detail to the story that had already emerged by the end of 1989: In the months after the bloody crackdown, Bush secretly sought conciliation with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Nevertheless, the documents underscore the larger dynamics of what took place: Bush and Scowcroft—and Richard Nixon, their old boss, who was working with them—in 1989 still viewed the Soviet Union in Cold War terms and therefore saw a close relationship with China as crucial to American diplomacy.

James Lilley, Bush’s ambassador to China in 1989, later said in an interview that as the Tiananmen protests spread, the White House seemed more interested in a tangential event: a U.S. Navy port call to Shanghai, intended to show up Mikhail Gorbachev, who had just visited Beijing. Indeed, on Scowcroft’s first visit to Beijing after Tiananmen, the documents show, he quickly invoked the anti-Soviet partnership between China and the United States, telling Deng, “We have benefited—both sides—strategically with respect to the Soviet Union.”

Yet these Cold War dynamics were already becoming obsolete as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proceeded with his reforms. Amid the Tiananmen demonstrations, Gorbachev had visited China and been met by enthusiastic cheers from Chinese protesters.

Throughout the 1987-1989 period, Bush and Scowcroft (and Nixon) were hawks on Soviet policy; they all felt that Ronald Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz had been too willing to believe Gorbachev represented far-reaching change for the Soviet Union. Bush did not change course on Soviet policy until the end of 1989, after his own first summit with Gorbachev.

As he clung to the old Cold War anti-Soviet partnership with China, Bush offered various public explanations for not taking stronger action in response to Tiananmen. One rationalization was a version of what I’ve called the “China Fantasy.” On June 5, 1989, the day after the crackdown, Bush told a press conference, “I think the depth of the feeling towards democracy in China is so great that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle and return to total repression.” Those words sounded far-sighted, but turned out to be wrong.

The 1989 Tiananmen protests and ensuing crackdown were one of the first major global historical events covered live by satellite television news for the world to witness. Later, we would see the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the first Persian Gulf War, but Tiananmen, with compelling student leaders and breathless anchormen, changed the way we saw and thought we understood events on the other side of the globe.

The U.S. Government, however, remained stuck in more of a 19th-century communications world; I noted that a few of these “NODIS cables” (no distribution) were stuck shouting in ALL CAPS, not because of their urgency, but because the secure communication systems at the time required that format. Now, the U.S. government communicates, both internally and externally, via classified email, video conference, and encrypted telephone conversations. But in 1989, while the action unfolded on the streets of Beijing (and many other Chinese cities out of the gaze of television cameras), those formulating the U.S. response were working in a decidedly less visually appealing medium of telegrams and cables. No matter how good the drafter, an embassy report couldn’t compete with footage of “tank man” or the Goddess of Democracy.

What does come across in these formal documents is how the most senior U.S. officials wrestled with how to respond to the military crackdown, which left thousands dead. Policymakers in the midst of a crisis operate with less-than-perfect information (how could Deng Xiaoping not have approved of sending in troops?!) and that is evident here. But much more important in an era of unprecedented shifting global order—the Cold War was limping, but still alive—U.S. officials focused on what mattered: trying to limit civilian causalities around Beijing, assisting Chinese dissidents, and cutting ties to the perpetrators of the violence (the People’s Liberation Army). After the shooting stopped, officials thoughtfully considered what external policies were in U.S. interests: preventing the dangerous sale of Chinese weapons technologies, continuing anti-Soviet coordination, improving the lives of Chinese citizens. Today, with neo-authoritarian leaders on the march globally, readers may snicker at President Bush’s claim that history was moving “inexorably” towards democracy, but I am struck more by the President’s eloquence, honesty, and dignity in the face of uncertainty about the massacre: “And so I condemn it; I don’t try to explain it.”

As for the Chinese leaders, one word comes to mind: chutzpah. In his meeting with Scowcroft on July 2, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s ridiculous invocation of the phrase “he who ties the knot, must untie it” and then essentially blaming Voice of America transmissions for the carnage, show a wily negotiator at the height of his game. Meeting with American envoys, Deng deployed nearly every mechanism Richard Solomon described in his book Chinese Negotiating Behavior: setting the agenda, questioning sincerity, invoking friendship, and distorting the record. Still, as we look at news from Hong Kong now, the mindset of China’s leaders has not changed that much over 30 years: When trouble strikes, blame foreign interference.

Reading this archive, I felt whipsawed between opposing poles of reaction. The obsequiousness of President Bush, Brent Scowcroft, and James Baker as they responded to the leaders of a “people’s republic” that had just sent its “People’s Liberation Army” into its capital to attack the people they purported to represent was shocking and offensive. Bush et al deported themselves in a manner so supplicating, so disconnected from what had just occurred, one might think the U.S. not China was the offending and inferior power.

But I also felt grudging admiration for Bush’s commitment to keeping a channel open, even when rebuffed by Chinese leaders who initially didn’t even deign to answer his phone calls or letters. Wary that an “overly emotional” U.S. reaction might cause “a total break” and “throw China back into the hands of the Soviet Union,” Bush persisted in his bridge-building. Even as Deng blamed America for Tiananmen, Bush bent over backwards to show deference. He flogged his “friendship” with Deng, begged Beijing to remember the critical nature of “the relationship,” and Americans to understand “it would be a tragedy for all if China were to pull back to its pre-1972 era of isolation and repression.”

One can fault Bush for giving too much too soon or even for making America responsible for ceding ground to “save the relationship”—a posture that would endure through subsequent decades.

However, especially in Bush’s own beseeching letters to Deng, there is also an admirable, tenacious refusal to let the two countries’ hard-won relationship just implode. It bespeaks of Bush’s urge to have America lead, even if it meant compromise, fatuous flattery, appeals to illusory “friendship,” even moral equivocation. After all, were we not the senior power, the putative “leader of the Free World”? Didn’t that role entail certain parental burdens requiring that even as Deng stuck fingers in his eyes, Bush would insist on “a prudent, reasoned response” so as not to “hurt the Chinese people.” He wanted to rescue the U.S.-China relationship from the abyss into which the Chinese Communist Party had cast it—an understandable instinct, even as his tactics opened him to criticism.

Unfortunately, embedded in Bush’s strategy was the very same challenge we confront today: how a liberal democracy and a Leninist one-party state can negotiate such a stark conflict in system and values.

Through these documents, we can be present, not at the creation of “engagement” as a policy, but at the first major test of its operating system in a crisis; we can glimpse how delicate these negotiations were and how they engendered enduring pathologies. One can only come away wondering how “open” and “closed” societies can ever expect to confect the kind of “constructive” relationship presupposed by the notion of “engagement” that some still dream of today.

Bush needed a new narrative justifying engagement and lofted a theme that would become far more important after the USSR’s collapse deprived America and China of their common adversary. He declared he believed that “as people have commercial incentives, whether it’s in China or other totalitarian systems, the move to democracy becomes inexorable.” His faith that markets and trade ineluctably would lead to more open societies has held up poorly over the ensuing three decades, especially under Xi Jinping and his increasingly militant “China Dream.”

From these documents, I read the following statement from President George H.W. Bush, made on June 5, 1989, less than 24 hours after the Tiananmen Massacre: “This is not the time for an emotional response, but for a reasoned, careful action that takes into account both our long-term interests and recognition of a complex internal situation in China.”

The following comment from Deng Xiaoping from July 2, during General Brent Scowcroft’s secret visit to Beijing while they met in the Great Hall of the People, right on the west side of Tiananmen Square, also caught my eye:

I don’t have much time to elaborate on the points. I just hope that United States statesmen and people will understand one point. I think that one must understand history; we have won the victory represented by the founding of the People’s Republic of China by fighting a 22-year war with the cost of more than 20 million lives, a war fought by the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party; and if one should add the three-year war to assist Korea against U.S. aggression then it would be a 25-year effort.

This was a declaration of the Chinese Communist Party’s (C.C.P.’s) determination to continue its one-party dictatorship. In fact, it has been reported that Deng and other senior Communist leaders expressed the same “point” when they internally discussed how to respond to student demonstrators’ demands for democracy: the C.C.P. paid the price, as Deng put it to Scowcroft, of 20 million lives to rule the country; if the students want this power, they have to pay the same. I believe that Bush fully understood Deng’s point. It was his “reasoned” decision to continue helping China’s rulers to maintain their rule, even after seeing the bloody crackdown only weeks earlier.

Thirty years have passed, yet China’s Communist Party is only becoming more authoritarian and cruel. Many Western experts and politicians used wishful thinking to convince themselves that the wealth of the middle class would transform China from authoritarianism to a democracy. But the reality is that Chinese rulers have taken advantage of their inclusion in the globalized trading process, significantly growing China’s economy under the C.C.P.-controlled state capitalism, but refusing to allow any political liberalization. Today, the digitization of Chinese society is turning China into a surveillance state. A new generation of technology, including AI and Big Data, is empowering the state to monitor, control, and manipulate China’s vast population in scalable fashion, with ease and with the capacity to micro-target individuals. Internationally, China is eroding the sovereignty of other countries and aims to change the behavior of these countries so that they are more aligned with China’s preferences. China is also now exporting those surveillance technologies to autocratic regimes around the world, normalizing and enabling a global authoritarianism.

If Bush’s stated “long-term interests” of the United States refers to the span of these 30 years, then his self-righteous “strategic vision” was completely misguided.