Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement that China should publish the details of people killed, detained or missing in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 highlights an aspect of the bilateral trade talks that has been in the shadows until now: Namely, China’s desire to see the lifting of sanctions remaining from the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991, enacted by Congress in response to that brutal crackdown in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, were killed and many more wounded and imprisoned, for their participation in a pro-democracy rally in Beijing.
The so-called “Tiananmen Sanctions” suspended arm sales and export licenses to China for “crime control and detection instruments and equipment,” aimed at making it harder for the regime to acquire technology to further oppress its people.
The issue arises every year at this time with the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989. Chinese dissidents, activists in Hong Kong, human rights groups — and the U.S. — recall the infamous event and demand from China that it reform its ongoing authoritarian practices.
Thus, Pompeo took the opportunity to urge the Chinese leaders to make amends for Tiananmen, or at least a gesture in that direction, if it wants to see the end of those sanctions.
The Chinese response was swift and unsurprising. In a terse statement at a routine press briefing on Monday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that it has “lodged stern representations with the United States” over the secretary’s comment.
This was consistent with the regime’s policy of stonewalling requests for information about the massacre, much less initiating reform of repressive practices.
No doubt, Pompeo did not expect Beijing to answer any differently. But he did not make it a condition to progress in the bilateral trade talks. It was not a bargaining point, but a moral point.
“We join others in the international community in urging the Chinese government to make a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing,” he said.
Quoting Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who wrote in his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize speech, delivered in absentia: “The ghosts of June 4th have not yet been laid to rest.” Liu last year became only the second Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in police custody.
In Hong Kong, it is a moral point, and much more. The ghosts of June 4 haunt the city. Democracy there is under constant threat from Beijing, and the anniversary again brought tens of thousands of people to a mass candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, where a major theme was an “end to one-party dictatorship.”
The use of the phrase has brought intimations of a crackdown from local officialdom. The former top Chinese official in Hong Kong suggested that anyone using the slogan should be barred from running for office. This is not mere bluster in Hong Kong, where the Chinese government in 2016 banned independence activists from public office.
The annual vigil serves a dual purpose: not only to maintain pressure on China to improve on human rights domestically, but also as a reminder of its pledge to preserve the freedoms that Hong Kong enjoyed as a British colony before it came under Beijing’s control in 1997. Residents of Hong Kong fear, and rightly so, that the repression that still prevails in China could at any time sweep away their democratic and human rights.
The modernization and revitalization of China economically has entailed a shedding of the fetters of communist ideology in the marketplace. This conjures up the image of a more liberal, tolerant atmosphere, and so it is — economically and culturally. But politics there has not kept pace with economics. On the contrary, if anything, matters have grown worse.
And whereas in Hong Kong the Chinese authorities have tread lightly, such has not been the case in China itself. Michael Caster, a human rights advocate and expert on China, wrote this week that “nearly three decades after Tiananmen, repression in China is worse than ever.”
Caster told of his friend Wang Quanzhang, who “was detained more than 1,000 days ago and family and friends have not received word about his whereabouts and condition, amid a widespread crackdown on human rights defenders as China has systematized enforced disappearances and extralegal detentions.”
Part of the repression is “a vast system of digital surveillance that intrudes into people’s daily lives,” he wrote.
That system is facilitated by an uninhibited business with security companies that specialize in facial recognition and other technologies that Beijing uses to control its population. Caster argues that such events as the China International Exhibition on Police Equipment and the China Public Security Expo, where American and European companies gather to display their wares, “should clearly constitute a violation of restrictions under the ‘Tiananmen sanctions.’ ”
The context of Secretary Pompeo’s comments is, of course, well understood in Beijing. As they made clear, they don’t want to hear it, and they aren’t going to change tomorrow to please Washington.
Yet, experience has shown that even the most brutal dictatorships are sensitive to international pressure. Keeping the pressure on is a good thing.