1989 Tiananmen Incident and US-China Relations - Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History


1989 Tiananmen Incident and US-China Relations




Georgia Southern University


When the Tiananmen Square Incident took place in the spring of 1989, the United States was stunned. The media was quick to criticize China’s military actions against the student protests and this resulted in a breakdown of US-China relations. However, 20 years later, China is one of the biggest trade partners of the United States. It is easy to wonder how the hostility created by the crackdown became neutralized and transformed into such an important relationship. This paper aims to explore the post-1989 recovery of Sino-American relations. By chronicling the major events between the United States and China from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, it suggests that the 1989 Tiananmen incident was a sharp turn on the road toward friendship between the two countries. As the analysis shows, the severe damages on Sino-American relations were eventually fixed through communiqués, compromises, restored affairs, and time. The relationship once again hit its high point in the 2000s, indicating a bright future despite the decline immediately following 1989.



Deng's visit to the US, 1979. Source: Beijing SHOTS

After the Civil War in 1949, China became a Communist country under the rule of Mao Zedong. Due to its large size, as well as its proximity to other countries, China as a Communist powerhouse could easily influence additional countries into the same political policies as they were now practicing. The United States government greatly opposed China’s new direction but did not act when this news was released.  No new foreign policy between China and the United States was developed. In the 1970s, the United States began attempts of establishing a relationship with China, and China complied. One problem China was facing during the 1970s was Taiwan’s desire for independence. In order to please the Chinese and improve relations with China, President Nixon signed the Shanghai Joint Communiqué in 1972, which declared that there is only one China, and therefore Taiwan was a part of The People’s Republic of China.[1] China reaped the benefits of this new relationship through trade with the United States, as well as the overall improved trust between the United States and China. In 1976, Mao died, and Deng Xiaoping took his place. Deng was widely accepted by the younger generation as a more liberal leader, who was not only focused on the growth of China, but was concerned with improving foreign relations.[2]    



The 1980s witnessed a Western cultural fever among the younger generation in China. There was an evolution of intellectuals and groups of students discussing different political topics. The most successful region of the world during this time was the “West,” specifically the United States. Through this influence of the West, the Chinese people developed a desire for a more democratic type of leadership, for the ability for individuals to converse with their government in order to improve it, and for a more capitalist economy; all ideas found in the United States. The younger generation was optimistic that Deng Xiaoping would be the type of leader they needed, and that he would transform China’s conservative government policy into a more liberal one. Deng also made it clear he was going to develop relations with the United States with his Texas visit, to which he wore a Stetson cowboy hat (a very western type of attire).[3] Improved relations with the United States marked the beginnings of foreign investment, and China’s economy reflected that. China’s future looked bright. This took a turn when Deng suddenly became much stricter, not allowing China’s students and intellectuals to voice their opinions and desires. Reasons behind Deng’s crackdown were unknown, but would eventually lead to the events in the following few years.


As the Western cultural fever of the early 1980s progressed, the influence of The Voice of America (which provided “Mandarin programming on economics, Western political thought, and business management”) was becoming rampant. Chinese people relied on the broadcasts from the VOA to remain up to date with the rest of the world as well as the events happening inside of China. Although the United States government did not directly fund the VOA, they were very supportive of the broadcasts.  Since the early broadcasts of the VOA, the Chinese government jammed the radio signals of the broadcasts into China.  This jamming by the government began to worry the United States. What did China have to hide? This signal jamming was outlawed by the International Telecommunications Convention of 1982, but the Chinese Government was not abiding by this order.[4] Even with these jamming, the United States continued foreign relations with China.  However, these conflicts between the VOA and the Chinese government would wind up being a precedent for the turmoil to come.


By 1985, individuals began speaking out with problems they felt the Chinese government needed to fix. This included one individual who would wind up almost severing Chinese-US relations: Fang Lizhi. Fang felt it was the intellectuals’ responsibility to speak up against the wrong being done by the Chinese government and often influenced students to speak up for their beliefs, even if they were in opposition to the government.[5] Courageous students vocalizing their views resulted in student protests. Issues of Sino-Japanese relations became the first topics in the opening student demonstration of 1985. Although small, the first protest “surely cause[d] increased uncertainty in Sino-Japanese relations, and raised the profile of student demonstrations.”[6] The intellectual and student community continued to step up and voice their feelings over an array of issues. With the rallies occurring against Japan, the relationship between Japan and China continued to waiver.  United States officials felt “the demonstration[s] [were] sure to create further unease in the Sino-Japanese relationship” with the Chinese government maintain[ing] an ambiguous role in the demonstrations.[7] China’s government allowed the demonstration, most likely due to their small scale, but the United States began to predict a crackdown on these students in the near future. With the prediction of a tough crackdown, the United States became concerned for the students’ safety and their human rights. Relationships with China started to become “on edge.” The Chinese government was continuing to jam signals from the VOA and was also censoring Chinese media.[8] Chinese media that was released was often biased, and would become even more biased in the events that followed.



Chinese student protests in 1989
Source: 64 Memo

Come 1989, unrest in China was obvious. “Government corruption was rampant, and prices of consumer goods… were now skyrocketing out of control.”[9] Under President Bush, the United States continued to improve relations with China. In February 1989, President Bush made a visit to China with very specific goals. These included “reflecting our (United States’) importance to China as a militarily strong, technologically advanced nation with whom China shares substantial interests; lay[ing] foundation for continuing strong and growing China relationship as means of insuring that improving Sino-Soviet ties does not jeopardize fundamental US interests, [and] reaffirm[ing] framework for US China policy, provide reassurance that US friendship for Taiwan will be pursues in consistent manner that promotes peaceful resolution of the issue.”[10] With these goals in mind, President Bush hosted a banquet to which he invited many Chinese high ranking officials as well as Fang Lizhi. This invitation to Fang almost destroyed relations with the Chinese government as they considered Fang a traitor for his role in the student demonstrations of 1985 and 1986. Zhu Qizhen, China’s Vice Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was threatening to boycott the banquet due to the invitation to Fang Lizhi.[11]   The President did revoke his invitation from Fang in order to avoid causing any problems.



June fourth, 1989, the climax of the Tiananmen Square Incident had arrived. In the evening shots were fired in and around Tiananmen Square; the Chinese government started its crackdown.[12] News spread quickly not only around China, but around the world.  Tension between China and the United States also unfolded. Not only did the Chinese government’s crackdown violate the Geneva Code, but it went against the route China was seemingly working towards. The VOA broadcasted news of the events throughout the world, but again was censored inside of China. The Washington Post and The New York Times unfolded the events to the citizens of the United States, enraging many people, and making many question why the United States did not step in.[13] Many people felt that the actions of the Chinese government were a violation of basic human rights. But “The United States was so intent on improving its relations with China that, to its shame, it said nothing.”[14]

Immediately following the event, the United States did impose sanctions on June fifth and June twentieth against China including: the suspension of any arm sales or other US exports to China, the suspension of exchanges between the US and Chinese military leadership, the suspension of exchanges with officials at or above the rank of Assistant Secretary and the postponement of any further aid or loan assistance from international financial institutions.[15] Also, Overseas Private Insurance Corporation activities were suspended and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency suspended all new activities with China.[16] After the world caught wind of the Tiananmen event, the Chinese government denied the situation in Tiananmen. Because of this, the United States felt China would need “to pay the price in terms of their own legitimacy” as in fix their new reputation gained from June fourth. [17] The ignorance of the Chinese government was not appropriate for a country that was to be associated with the United States. 


The 1990’s marked a decade of strained relations as well as a struggle for improvement in China’s economy. China’s economy was recovering from the short slump 1989 that is experienced because of the conflict in Beijing. After 1991, China’s economy was again growing. As a protest to the Tiananmen Crackdown, in September of 1992, President Bush approved the sale of fighter jets from the United States to Taiwan.[18] This was considered a setback to the 1979 unofficial communiqué which stated the United States would not sell, or slow down the sale of arms to Taiwan. This would eventually lead to more hostile relations between China and the United States.[19]  



Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the US in 1993
Source: Beijing SHOTS

In 1993, President Clinton decided to “use economic leverage to promote democracy in China” by only allowing China to be a Most Favored Trading Nation if they implemented “specific improvements in human rights.”[20] This was because it was believed: “China ha[d] made progress only in the realm of the economy. Their rational is that despite (or because of) China’s ongoing economic transformation, the Communist regime ha[d] been able to resist genuine political change.”[21]



Immediately following the loss of China as one of the United States’ Most Favored Trading Nation in 1993, China’s economy took a hit, growing much less than it was experiencing in the years before the Tiananmen crackdown.[22]  China began taking more global approaches in order to improve their relations with the United States. This was achieved by voting in support of US troops in the Persian Gulf, signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, joining the Missile Technology Control Regime, and advancing peace in Cambodia.[23]


The United States continued support, and maintained associations with Taiwan after the 1989 crackdown, even though it put immense strain on the China-US relationship. For six years, China showed restraint by not interfering between Taiwan and the United States. Then, in 1996, China held missile tests off the coast of Taiwan, in order to deter voters from voting for Lee Teng-hui, who was pro-democracy and for Taiwanese independence.  This did not sit well with the United States who as a result, sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to Taiwan.  Tension between the United States and China hit its highest point since the Tiananmen Square Incident. Improvements were made in the China-US relationship when in July of 1997, the United Kingdom transferred rule of Hong Kong to China.[24] In 1999, an accidental bombing of the United States embassy in Beijing again put stress on the US-China relationship.



Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the US in 2002
Source: Beijing SHOTS

During the 2000’s things began to look up for foreign relations in China. In September of 2000, the United States passed the “Permanent Normal Trade Relations Bill,” which guaranteed Chinese goods the same low-tariff access to the United States market as products from most other countries.[25] Then in 2001, China was allowed in to the World Trade Organization, taking its economy to a whole new level.[26] The best news came in 2002 when Chinese President Jiang Zemin and George Bush met and agreed to work together to tackle the news that North Korea had nuclear weapons.[27] This cooperation marked a milestone. China, who had gone from a United States’ Communist enemy, was now an ally on the war against nuclear weapons, even against another Communist country.



The last 60 years have been challenging for Sino-American relations, but the future looks promising. The Tiananmen Incident hindered the relationship between the United States and China, but in the long run forced China to take some, if not all, responsibility of the event.  Through more than two decades of gradual recovery from the distress created by 1989, China today is the most important trade partner of the United States. The US-China relationship hit its highest point in the 2000s, when it was admitted into the World Trade Organization, and when it received Permanent Normal Trade Relations with the United States. “U.S. China policy has been consistent... Democratic and Republican, U.S. China policy has been to encourage China’s opening and integration into the global system.  As a result, China has been moved from being a relatively isolated and poor country to a key participant in international institutions and a major trading nation.”[28]



About the author


Brittany Partridge is a junior at Georgia Southern University, studying History and Spanish.  She is a member of The National Society of Leadership and Success and Phi Eta Sigma. She plans on perusing Master degree in Education after graduation.



Recommended citation


Brittany Partridge, “1989 Tiananmen Incident and US-China Relations,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 3, no.1 (Jan. 2013).





[1]  “Timeline: US-China Relations,” BBC News,http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012), 6.

[2]Craig Calhoun.  Neither gods nor emperors. (LA: University of California Press, 1997), 147.

[3] “Timeline: US-China Relations,” BBC News < http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm> (accessed April 11, 2012) 6.

[4]Edwin Feulner,et al., "December 1989 - United States Public Diplomacy in China: A Report of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy." U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy: Reports. http://www.state.gov/pdcommission/reports/175771.htm (accessed April 11, 2012).

[5]Fang Lizhi, "The Social Responsibility of Today’s Intellectuals," http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/cup/fang_lizhi_responsibility.pdf (Accessed March 03, 2012)

[6] "A Student Demonstration of Sorts in Tiananmen Square." http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/documents/01-01.htm  (Accessed April 25, 2012), 1.

[7]"Government Arrests Student Demonstrators” http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/documents/02-01.htm  (Accessed April 25, 2012), 1.

[8]Edwin Feulner, et al.,8.

[9]Michael Evans, "The U.S. "Tiananmen Papers". National Security Archive Briefing Book. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB47 (accessed March 30, 2012), 8.

[10] "Government Arrests Student Demonstrators” http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB16/documents/02-01.htm  (Accessed April 25, 2012) 1.

[11]“Timeline: US-China Relations.” BBC News  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012), 3.

[12] Jeffrey Wasserstorm, Student Protests in 20th Century China: The View from Beijing (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1991), 2.

[13]Chin-Chuan Lee, Hongtao Li, and Francis Lee, "Symbolic Use of Decisive Events: Tiananmen as a New Icon in the Editorials of the Elite U.S. Press," International Journal of Press/Politics. (Accessed March 30, 2012), 356.

[14]Anthony Lewis. "Abroad At Home: Thunder Out in China." The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/21/opinion/abroad-at-home-thunder-out-of-china.html?scp=1&sq=ABROAD-AT-HOME-Thunder-Out-of-China&st=cse (accessed April 25, 2012)..

[15] Sue Xuefeng, "The Efficiency of China's Policy towards the United States," Chinese Journal of International Politics. http://cjip.oxfordjournals.org/content/1/1/57.full (accessed April 23, 2012), 3. Two loans that China lost due to this incident totaled 230 and 780 million dollars.

[16] "Background Note: China." U.S. Department of State. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/18902.htm  (accessed April 24, 2012).  

[17]Elizabeth Economy, et al., "Tiananmen Square and Two Chinas." Council on Foreign Relations.  http://www.cfr.org/china/tiananmen-square-two-chinas/p19544 (Accessed April 11, 2012), 1.

[18]Ibid., 5

[19]“Timeline: US-China Relations.” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012), 5.

[20]“Timeline: US-China Relations.” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012), 5.


[22] GDP growth in China 1952-2011," Chinability, http://www.chinability.com/GDP.htm (Accessed April 30, 2012.).

[23] Sue Xuefeng, "The Efficiency of China's Policy towards the United States," Chinese Journal of International Politics. http://cjip.oxfordjournals.org/content/1/1/57 (accessed April 23, 2012), 4.

[24] “Timeline: US-China Relations,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012), 4.

[25] “Timeline: US-China Relations,” BBC News http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012), 3.

[26] Economy, 5.

[27] “Timeline: US-China Relations,” BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/1258054.stm (accessed April 11, 2012),  1.

[28] "Background Note: China," U.S. Department of State. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/18902.htm (accessed April 24, 2012).

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