The Impact of Tiananmen on China’s Foreign Policy

The Impact of Tiananmen on China's Foreign Policy

by Harry Harding
December 1, 1990

It is clear that China’s relations with much of the world were deeply affected by the Tiananmen Incident. But what about China’s own foreign policy?

The tragedy that unfolded around Tiananmen Square in June 1989 had an immediate impact on China’s foreign relations. Together with its allies, the United States quickly imposed a series of diplomatic and economic sanctions against China. The details of those sanctions varied from country to country, but in general they involved the suspension of high-level official visits, official development assistance and export credits, and sales of military and police equipment. The relaxation controls on the transfer of advanced technology to China, both by individual governments and by the Coordinating Committee (COCOM), was also postponed. Under pressure from the United States and members of the European Community, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank agreed to halt lending to China. These official actions were supplemented by the unofficial and spontaneous decisions of private individuals and institutions in Europe, Japan, and the United States to reconsider the desirability of conducting business with China.

The net impact of all these decisions on China’s foreign relations has been substantial. The level of official dialogue between China and the West has fallen sharply. Western nations have suspended military relations for the most part, although some low-level contacts involving the sharing of intelligence, discussion of strategic issues, and design of weapons systems appear to continue. There have been dramatic declines in revenues from tourism (down 20 percent in 1989), direct foreign investment (down 22 percent in the first half of 1990), and foreign lending (down 40 percent in 1989), although Beijing has been able to protect its foreign exchange balances by imposing strict controls over imports. [1]

It is clear, then, that China’s relations with much of the world were deeply affected by the Tiananmen Incident. But what about China’s own foreign policy? One might have expected changes in Chinese foreign policy after June 1989. Sanctions could have produced a harsh retaliatory response. The more conservative leadership that emerged from the crisis might have adopted a more rigid foreign policy than its predecessors. And the more skeptical approach toward economic and political reform that appeared after the Tiananmen Incident could have been accompanied by a less forthcoming attitude toward economic and cultural relations with the West.


Indeed, there was intense debate in China over the future of foreign policy, beginning immediately after the antigovernment demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were suppressed and lasting for at least a year, until the release of dissident Fang Lizhi from his refuge in the American Embassy in June 1990. During that debate, some voices called for a significant reorientation of China’s foreign relations, away from both the United States and the Soviet Union and toward the Third World and the remaining hard-line communist states.

In the end, however, proposals for a return to a relatively inflexible policy obtained little support. In fact, Chinese policy toward the West in general and the United States in particular has becomes more moderate over time. This appears to be the results of two interrelated factors: the continuing interest of a majority of Chinese leaders in maintaining economic, cultural, and strategic ties with the West; and their growing realization that improvements in Soviet-American relations and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe have given Beijing much less leverage over Washington than was the case in the 1970s or early 1980s.

The internal debate over the future course of China’s foreign policy was reflected in the diverse analyses of the international situation that appeared in press accounts, official statement, and academic journals. There have also been credible reports of differences within the Chinese leadership over policy toward both the Soviet Union and the United States, some carried in the Hong Kong press and some conveyed privately by knowledgeable Chinese observers in Shanghai and Beijing.

At the risk of oversimplification, the opinions expressed during this debate can be divided into three schools of thought: the hard-liners, who favored both a more rigid foreign policy and a retreat from economic and political reform; the reformers, who sought to promote further economic and political restructuring through a close relationship with the West; and a group that might be called the “rough internationalists,” who wished to maintain extensive economic ties with the outside world but to do so on China’s own terms. Given the veiled nature of political discourse in China, particularly at a time of tightened political controls, it is difficult to assign these views with either precision or confidence to individual political leaders, bureaucratic agencies, or research institutions. Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate about the sectors of the Chinese political system in which each options has found support.


The changes in the Chinese leadership following the Tiananmen Incident have permitted the expression of a conservative view of international relations that draws upon a long xenophobic tradition in Chinese foreign relations, but has not been publicly espoused for almost a decade. Since June 1989, this viewpoint has been articulated by the organizations responsible for maintaining ideological orthodoxy in China (particularly the propaganda establishment headed by Deng Liqun), but has also found some support from several of China’s most elderly leaders, including Vice President Wang Zhen, former President Li Xuiannian, and veteran economic planner Chen Yun. Two members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo—Song Ping and Yao Yilin, both close associates of Chen Yun—may also be receptive to elements of the hard-line position.

China’s hard-liners have portrayed the global environment as threatening to Chinese interests in several respects. They have warned that extensive interaction with the outside world, especially the West, risks the introduction of disruptive ideas into China. At a minimum, in their analysis, the demonstrations that swept China in the spring of 1989 showed that such contacts can profoundly threaten the political stability and social order of the country. And some of them apparently believe that foreign governments, or at least foreign news media and scholars, directly supported or instigated the demonstrations. To the hard-liners, these developments prove that the “imperialist” forces, headed by the United States, are engaged in a two-pronged strategy of tightening economic control over developing countries and promoting the “peaceful evolution” of communist nations.[2]

At first, some Chinese conservatives explored the possibility of pursuing a more equidistant policy between the United States and the Soviet Union as a way of preserving China’s ability to resist Western pressure and blandishments. As Sino-American relations deteriorated over human rights issues in the late winter and early spring of 1989, for example, Vice Premier Yao Yilin reportedly suggested that China increase its economic relations with the Soviet Union as a counterbalance against a predicted decline in Western loans and investments.[3] But Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s radical political reforms inside the Soviet Union itself soon led Chinese hard-liners to conclude that the Soviet Union was as much a threat to China’s internal stability as was the United States. In echoes of the early 1960s, Chinese conservatives—particularly Wang Zhen—began denouncing Gorbachev as a “revisionist” who was engaging in “capitulation” and “retrogression” both at home and abroad.[4]

By the end of 1989, the hard-liners appeared to have settled on three other policy prescriptions, all derived from their analysis of the international environment. First, they advocated tough public criticism of both Washington’s policy of “peaceful evolution” and the Kremlin’s “revisionism.”[5] Presumably this would have also meant a less accommodating position toward either country on bilateral and multilateral issues. Second, they proposed a retrenchment on both economic and cultural ties with the West, arguing for finer “filters” over China’s door to the outside world so as to screen out “negative” foreign influences.[6] This would have involved tighter restrictions on study abroad, limitations on foreign faculty in China, and possibly a less hospitable climate for at least some types of foreign investment. And third, they suggested compensating for the reduction in Chinese ties with the Soviet Union and the West by expanding relations with the remaining conservative communist regimes in Eastern Europe and East Asia, as well as promoting contacts with friendly governments in the Third World.[7] On balance, these proposals would have produced a more rigid, and somewhat more isolationist, international posture for China.


The second position evident in the debate on foreign policy in China is associated with the proponents of far-reaching economic and political reform. Although the reformers’ voices have largely been silenced in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident, their analyses of the international situation were widely published before June 1989, and their views on foreign policy since then can be inferred from scattered press reports and interviews with knowledgeable Chinese. A large number of China’s international affairs specialists in research institutions in both Beijing and Shanghai appear to have lobbied quietly for this position through internal channels, along with many professional diplomats in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some reports also indicate that, of China’s top leaders, General Secretary Jiang Zemin and especially Li Ruihuan, the Politburo member who was once mayor of Tianjin, have been most receptive to their recommendations. So have the leaders of some of China’s coastal cities and provinces, which have a direct economic stake in preserving China’s policy of opening to the outside world.

To the reformers, the international environment of the late 1980s and early 1990s presents China with a complex combination of opportunity and challenge. The growing costs of military preparations, the increasing intensity of economic competition, and the relative decline of Soviet and American influence are encouraging a general reduction of international tensions. The two superpowers, the reformers believe, must engage in détente so as to reduce the burdens of their arms race and compensate for their declining economic positions. All major powers, they argue, are interested in maximizing their access to foreign markets as part of a general competition for “comprehensive national strength.” Such a situation makes it both necessary and desirable for Beijing to seek foreign capital, technology, and markets from an unprecedentedly wide range of nations, all of whom are presumed to be eager for a share of the benefits of economic relations with China.

But the reformers have acknowledged that there is a less favorable side to the international environment. They recognize that China’s international leverage in the 1970s and early 1980s depended to a large degree on the strategic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each superpower’s hope of “playing the China card” against its rival gave Beijing a degree of influence far beyond its objective military or economic capabilities. The virtual end of the Cold War, the reformers admit, has significantly reduced China’s weight in Washington’s strategic calculations, meaning that Beijing cannot exert much pressure on the United States to lift its sanctions. As one astute analyst put it, the paradoxical result for China is that “the more relaxed the [international] situation, the more severe the test to us.”[8]

Another concern has been the increasing competitiveness of the international economy, especially in the Asia-Pacific region. Before the crisis in Tiananmen Square, Chinese reformers warned that the country’s relatively backward economy and rigid economic system would be a major obstacle to the development of its “comprehensive national strength.”[9] China’s mounting economic difficulties, especially the postponement of further economic and political reform in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident, have been of particular concern to those Chinese who worry about their country’s international economic competitiveness. According to one report in a Hong Kong periodical with good sources in Beijing, a Chinese Communist Party delegation visiting the Soviet Unions in late 1989 concluded that China would find itself less able to compete with the Soviet Union for foreign capital and markets unless it quickly resumed its economic reforms.[10]

This analysis most likely led reformers to advocate that China maintain the full range of economic relationships and cultural exchanges that they deem essential to their country’s modernization and reform. To this end, they resisted the confrontation with Moscow advocated by the hard-liners and proposed that China continue to expand its commercial and scientific ties with the Soviet Union. Different groups of reform-oriented intellectuals reportedly presented several lists of gestures that Beijing could make to the United States to prevent a further deterioration of Sino-American relations, and to encourage Washington to lift the sanctions imposed after the Tiananmen Incident.

The reformers have also been using their analysis of the international situation to promote a speedy resumption of economic and political reform. Only the renewal of political and economic restructuring, they argue, will encourage the West to lift its economic and diplomatic sanctions and enable China to maximize its international competitiveness.


The third school of thought in the debate over Chinese foreign policy is that of an influential group of leaders and analysts who might be described as “tough internationalists.” In important respects, their views fall somewhere between the flexibility of the reformers and the relative intransigence of the hard-liners. Proponents of this position have included several diplomats, military analysts, and journalistic commentators, as well as researchers in some think tanks in the capital. Among senior leaders, this third option has most likely received the support of Premier Li Peng, and, at least until the spring of 1990, Deng Xiaoping himself.

Unlike more conservative leaders, the tough internationalists believe that China should promote extensive economic connections with the outside world. They agree that China must gain access to foreign capital, technology, and markets if it is to modernize its economy, develop its armed forces, and exercise its influence as a major world power. They acknowledge, along with the reformers, that the world is characterized by an intense competition for comprehensive national strength, and that China can engage in the competition successfully only if it more fully integrated with the international economy.

What distinguishes the tough internationalists from the reformers is their continued faith in China’s ability to pursue international relationships on favorable terms. They are convinced that China maintains substantial leverage in its relations with the West. They are confident that China’s size and economic potential make it an irresistible partner for trade and investment, particularly in an era of intense international competition. They are persuaded, despite the recent tendencies toward a reduction of international tensions, that major power rivalries have not been completely resolved. They forecast continuing geopolitical strategic implications of the emergence of Japan and a unified Germany as major regional actors. This, they believe, will continue to make China a potentially important partner for all other great powers, especially the United States.[11]

The basic strategy of the tough internationalists is to use Beijing’s diplomatic and economic leverage to force the West, particularly the United States, to abandon its sanctions and restore normal ties with China. To this end, they have proposed several efforts: the gradual development of China’s relations with Moscow, so as to play a “Soviet card” against the West; diplomatic initiatives in the Third World, in order to demonstrate to both foreign and domestic audiences that China is not isolated; overtures to Japan, in the hope of shattering the Western consensus on sanctions against China; and a reiteration of China’s coastal development strategy, to maximize the attractiveness of the country’s investment climate. This strategy is well summarized in an internal policy statement attributed to the Foreign Affairs Ministry by one periodical in Hong Kong:

Disintegrate the West, never yield an inch to the United States, develop relations with Japan to resist the United States and Western Europe, maintain state-to-state relations with the Soviet Union, further develop relations with [North] Korea and Cuba, and vigorously strengthen friendly cooperation with the Third World.[12]

The assumption of such a policy is that once the emotions generated in the West by the Tiananmen Incident have cooled, “farsighted” foreign statesmen will gain a renewed appreciation of China’s economic and strategic importance. In the meantime, Beijing should neither make the concessions advocated by the reformers, not adopt the strong retaliatory measures proposed by the hard-liners. Instead, it should simply hold fast, waiting for the West gradually to remove its sanctions and restore a more normal relationship with China.


This review suggests that the debate in China over foreign policy since the Tiananmen Incident has centered around four questions:

  • Should China reorient its policy toward the Third World and the remnants of the communist block?
  • Should China close its door to the West?
  • Should China confront the Soviet Union?
  • Should China take an intransigent position in its relations with the United States?

As the debate has proceeded, the general conclusion reached on each of these questions has proved to be negative, implying little fundamental change in Beijing’s orientation toward the rest of the world. In all four areas, however, there have been some marginal adjustments, reflecting the general shift toward more conservative positions that has also been evident in domestic policy since the Tiananmen Incident.


Both the hard-liners and the tough internationalists have advocated initiatives toward the Third World to offset the reduction in China’s strategic and economic relations with the West. Since the Tiananmen Incident, Beijing has therefore attempted to reinvigorate its ties with important Third World Nations. Particularly noteworthy have been a series of high-level Chinese delegations to developing countries, including visits by Premier Li Peng to South and Southeast Asia, and by President Yang Shangkun to the Middle East and Latin America. A number of Third World leaders, including most prominently Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, have also visited China since June 1989.

At first, China’s Third World orientation appeared to gain little success. In 1989, in fact, Beijing’s efforts to maintain ties with Asia, Africa, and Latin America were overshadowed by the decisions of such countries as Grenada, Belize, and Liberia to extend diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. In 1990, however, China’s strategy finally began to bear fruit. It restored diplomatic relations with Indonesia, which had been suspended since a failed communist coup and military countercoup in Jakarta in 1965. This simultaneously laid the groundwork for the establishment of diplomatic ties with Singapore and Brunei, which had refused to recognize Beijing prior to the normalization of Sino-Indonesian relations. China also gained diplomatic recognition from Saudi Arabia, which had been one of Taiwan’s closest partners, in large part as a reward for China’s sale of intermediate-range ballistic missiles to Riyadh. The openings of a Chinese travel bureau in Israel and an Israeli academic exchange office in Beijing represent another important Chinese inroad into the Middle East.

Beijing also entertained the possibility of a closer alignment with conservative communist states in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Qiao Shi, the Politburo member responsible for internal security matters, traveled to Eastern Europe in the fall of 1989 to explore an expansion of ties with Romania and Bulgaria. A steady stream of Chinese leaders has visited Pyongyang to bolster Beijing’s alliance with North Korea. Beijing significantly improved relations with Cuba, which it had previously denounced as the junior partner of Soviet hegemonism in Africa and Latin America. At the same time, China also considered normalizing relations with Vietnam, which had been severely strained since the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia in late 1978 and the Sino-Vietnamese border war the following year.

The prospect of a closer relationship with Hanoi posed a major dilemma for Beijing, however. On the one hand, Chinese leaders calculated that the normalization of Sino-Vietnamese ties would underscore China’s role as a major player in the regional politics of Southeast Asia and significantly ease its isolation in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident. But they also wished to press Hanoi to withdraw its military forces from Cambodia and reduce its political support for the Phnom Penh government: a premature improvement in Sino-Vietnamese relations, it was thought, might encourage Hanoi to remain recalcitrant on the Cambodian issue.

Resolving this dilemma required concessions by both sides. For its part, China abandoned its earlier insistence that the Phnom Penh government be completely dissolved and replaced by a transitional coalition government with equal representation by all four Cambodian factions. Instead, together with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Beijing called for the creation of a quadripartite Supreme National Council in Cambodia, on which the Phnom Penh government might hold fully half of the sears. China also agreed that the United Nations should play a major role in supervising a cease-fire, overseeing the operation of the Phnom Penh government, and monitoring national elections. When, under pressure from the Soviet Unions, Hanoi and Phnom Penh also accepted this formula, the stage was set for an unpublicized Sino-Vietnamese summit, held in southern China in early September. This meeting marked the tacit normalization of Sino-Vietnamese ties, although it did not yet imply a particularly cordial or extensive relationship between the two countries.

Despite the normalization of its relations with Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, Beijing has understood the limitations of an alignment with the Third World and hard-line communist states. For one thing, the collapse of conservative regimes in Eastern Europe–including both those visited by Qiao Shi in late 1989–greatly reduced the number of countries willing to join China in an anti-Western coalition. For another, most Chinese leaders have recognized that such a redefinition of their foreign policy, if implemented rigorously, would mean a return to the self-imposed isolation that was one of the great shortcomings of Chinese foreign relations in the 1960s.

Thus Chinese leaders have chosen not to reorient their foreign policy in this way, but to use their contacts with the Third World and the remaining communist states as a way of demonstrating that China remains an important international actor that the West cannot afford to isolate or ignore. A renewed emphasis on the Third World, and to a lesser extent on the remnants of the socialist bloc, has indeed become a significant element in Chinese foreign policy since the Tiananmen Incident, just as China’s conservatives had advocated. But its aim appears to be to resurrect, rather than replace, Beijing’s ties with the West.


In keeping with the proposals of both the hard-liners and the tough internationalists to limit the introduction of “subversive” ideas, China has announced several sets of restrictions on academic exchanges with the West since June 1989. These include: requiring those who have received government funding for their college or postgraduate education to work for five years before their study abroad; reducing Chinese government support for graduate programs overseas and promoting shorter-term travel by visiting scholars; and placing minimum-age restrictions on some applicants for visiting scholarships abroad.

Even so, the basic framework of China’s cultural and scientific contacts with the outside world remains intact. Although Beijing suspended the Fulbright program, with the United States shortly after the Tiananmen Incident, it reinstated it in early 1990, in response to National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft’s mission to Beijing the previous December. Exchanges on relatively sensitive subjects, including programs in law and economics with the United States and a project on university reform with the World Bank, remain in place. Furthermore, most of the restrictions imposed by the hard-liners are strongly opposed by the Chinese academic community, and the thoroughness of their implementation is therefore very much in doubt.

China’s conservatives have also complained that economic relations with the West, like academic and cultural exchanges, were another source of disruptive ideas and values, and that they provided foreign interests with a means of exercising control over the Chinese economy. In June 1990, fore example, some of the hard-liners used the Opium War, whose 150th anniversary was celebrated that month, as a metaphor for the corrosive impact of Western trade and commerce on China.[13] This ideological critique of economic ties with the West was echoed by the complaints of many interior provinces, which have long been displeased with the preferential trade and investment policies granted to the provinces, cities, and Special Economic Zones (SEZs) along the coast. Both groups apparently pressed the central government in the summer of 1989 to abandon China’s coastal development strategy in favor of a new scheme that would assign priority to economic sectors rather than geographic regions, and that presumably would rely somewhat less on attracting foreign investment to China.

It is true that Beijing’s economic austerity program has involved a recentralization and recontrol of some aspects of China’s foreign relations, with the central government reinstituting licenses for key imports and exports, increasing import duties for key imports and exports, increasing import duties on a large number of commodities, limiting the number of agencies that can borrow abroad, and reducing the authority of local governments to make decisions concerning foreign trade and investment. But the coastal development strategy has not been abandoned. There has been intense pressure from the coastal provinces to maintain China’s previous policies concerning foreign economic relations and to preserve the preferences granted to the coastal regions. The establishment of the Pudong development zone in Shanghai, open to foreign services such as banking, accounting, and advertising, as well s to the manufacturing and processing industry, exemplifies the decision to maintain a wide range of economic relations with the West, and to emphasize the role of the coastal regions in forging them.


Nor have China’s policies toward the Soviet Union evolved in the direction advocated by the hard-liners in Beijing. Internal Chinese Communist Party documents have reportedly sharply attached Mikhail Gorbachev for revisionism at home and capitulationism abroad, and research institutions have been directed to conduct critical analyses of perestroika and glasnost. The Chinese press has carried articles explaining why the tendencies toward political pluralism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union are not appropriate to China. But Beijing has refrained from launching any public polemics against Moscow. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping was quoted as saying that it would be unwise of China to repeat the same mistakes it made in Sino-Soviet relations in the 1960s. [14]

Instead, China has sustained the rapprochement with the Soviet Union begun in the mid-1980s. Despite the reported objections of some conservative leaders, Li Peng traveled to Moscow in April 1990 to reciprocate Gorbachev’s trip to Beijing in May 1989.[15] His visit produced new agreements on economic and scientific cooperation, including arrangements for credits to facilitate the sale of nuclear power plants to China and the export of Chinese consumer goods to the Soviet Union. The two sides also finalized a set of principles on the reduction of forces along their common border, agreed to begin consultations between their foreign ministries on international issues, and resumed military exchanges. Subsequent reports revealed that the two countries have begun negotiations on the sale of Soviet military equipment to China.[16] Although Sino-Soviet relations seem to have little warmth, the ties between the two countries continue to grow. In part this is because a reduction of forces along the frontier and an expansion of economic ties are supported by the provinces bordering the Soviet Union and by elements of the military. Bur Chinese analysts have suggested that these developments are also partly intended to compensate for the attenuation of China’s ties with the West and to press the United States to relax its sanctions against Beijing.


In the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident, Beijing adopted a quite rigid policy toward the United States. In its allegations of American involvement in the antigovernment demonstrations, and in its accusations that the United States was promoting the “peaceful evolution” of communist countries from socialism to capitalism, Chinese propaganda reflected many of the themes put forward by the hard-liners in the summer of 1989. China suspended academic exchanges under the Fulbright program, canceled plans to receive English-language instructors from the Peace Corps, jammed the Chinese-language broadcasts of the Voice of America, and expelled the VOA correspondent from Beijing. Press accounts of American military strategy seemed more critical of American forward deployments in Korea and the Philippines than had previously been normal.

By late fall and early winter of 1989, China seemed to have muted much of its anti-American rhetoric. Discussions of the negotiations between Washington and Manila over the future of American bases in the Philippines adopted a more neutral tone, and there were fewer criticisms in the Chinese press of “peaceful evolution” and direct American interference in Chinese internal affairs. But despite the second Scowcroft visit in December, Beijing seemed unwilling to make a new VOA correspondent, reinstate the Fulbright and Peace Corps programs, lift martial law in Beijing, and release several hundreds of those arrested after Tiananmen, it was not prepared to reach an agreement on Fang Lizhi or significantly relax its internal political controls. Instead, China insisted that it was now up to Washington to make further gestures to revive U.S.-China relations.

In late spring and early summer of 1990, however, China further moderated its policy toward the United States, in keeping with some of the recommendations reportedly put forward by reform-oriented intellectuals and specialists on American affairs. Beijing released another batch of political dissidents, including some of those most widely known inside China and abroad; announced contracts to purchase a large number of Boeing passenger aircraft and long-distance telecommunications technology from AT&T; and agreed to permit Fang Lizhi and his family to leave China for Great Britain. Some of these concessions, particularly the release of Fang Lizhi from the American Embassy, were highly controversial and were taken only after intense debate within the Politburo.[17] The decision to make these gestures was very likely related to China’s concern over the possible termination of its most-favored nation (MFN) status and its desire to secure the resumption of foreign lending.

There were also some signs of Chinese flexibility on major regional and international issues. On Cambodia, for example, China agreed to a major role for the United Nations in an interim Cambodian government, accepted a less-than-equal role for the Khmer Rouge in the transitional political arrangements, and pledged to stop supplying arms to the Khmer Rouge once a comprehensive settlement had been reached.[18] Following the Scowcroft mission in December 1989, China gave somewhat more specific and public assurances to the United States that it would not sell medium-range missiles anywhere in the Middle East.[19] On Taiwan, despite pressure from hard-line leaders to press more forcefully for progress toward reunification, Beijing remained basically satisfied with the rapid development of cultural and economic ties across the Taiwan Strait. Perhaps most importantly, China not only opposed the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, but also voted in support of the U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing member-states to take “appropriate measures: to see that sanctions against Iraq were carried out.[20] It is plausible that these modifications and clarifications of Chinese policy have been designed in part to demonstrate to skeptical Americans that China is a significant and responsible actor in international affairs: too important to be ignored, and yet willing to acknowledge common approaches with the United States.


Chinese foreign policy thus reflects elements of all three sets of proposals advanced in the debate over foreign relations since the Tiananmen Incident. On balance, however, there has been a shift over time toward a more moderate foreign policy, with hard-line positions giving way to policies associated with the “tough internationalists,” and with elements of the reformers’ proposals increasingly apparent in China’s policy toward the United States.

The hard-liners’ position was most evident in the summer of 1989, immediately after the Tiananmen crisis. It was at this time that China imposed its own sanctions against the United States, generated harsh propaganda against American policy, and explored the possibility of a renewed alignment with conservative communist states. But the impact of this school of thought was relatively short-lived. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and strong domestic support for the open-door policy toward the West limited the appeal of this set of options. Today the hard-liners’ position is evident solely in the restrictions on academic exchanges with the West, and yet it is not clear how long or vigorously these new policies will be implemented.

The basic tone of Chinese foreign policy between the fall of 1989 and the spring of 1990 was set not by the hard-liners, but rather by the tough internationalists. They insisted that China’s strategic and economic importance, together with the gradual restoration of internal stability, would force foreign countries to restore relations with China. They decided not to engage in public criticism of the Soviet Union, but to proceed with plans for a second Sino-Soviet summit in April 1990. They also reasserted China’s coastal development strategy, and the policy of opening to the outside world more generally.

The policies associated with this position scored some significant results in late 1989 and early 1990. Key Third World nations proved ready to maintain, or in some cases to upgrade, their relations with China. Despite some domestic opposition, Mikhail Gorbachev refused to join the West in imposing sanctions against China, and agreed to receive Li Peng in Moscow in a second Sino-Soviet summit. One by one, major Western nations, including the United States, sent senior envoys to Beijing and resumed export credits to China. By the end of March 1990, Japan was expressing not only its impatience with American sanctions, but also its eagerness to restore official development assistance to China. And by April 1990, the Hong Kong pro-communist newspaper Wen Wei Po could claim that China’s “mature diplomacy” had proven that “so long as China is stable internally and its economy has developed, external economic sanctions will be of no avail.”[21]

But Sino-American relations may have improved more slowly than Chinese leaders had calculated. It is highly likely that Beijing was alarmed by the collapse of congressional support for relations with China, and by the prospects for a withdrawal of MRN status. Chinese officials came only gradually to understand that American public opinion was pressing not for a resumption of Sino-American relations, as they had assumed would be the case, but for even stronger sanctions against China. In Addition, Chinese leaders were disturbed by reports that, as relations between Washington and Moscow improved, American policymakers were assigning less strategic importance to China than was the case in the past.[22]

In the late spring and summer of 1990, therefore, Beijing decided to make additional gestures to the United States of the sort long favored by the reformers, including the release of more political dissidents, an agreement on the fate of Fang Lizhi, and the acknowledgement of common interests with Washington with regard to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Since these decisions could only have been made with the approval of China’s paramount leader, they imply that Deng Xiaoping had been persuaded to renounce some of the positions of the tough internationalists in favor of greater flexibility toward Washington.

In short, an examination of the major features of Chinese foreign policy since the Tiananmen Incident reveals a fairly clear pattern. The tendency has been to shift away from the policies advocated by the hard-liners, and toward a blend of the approaches associated with the reformers and the tough internationalists. In particular, policy toward the United States has become increasingly accommodating since the spring of 1990, as the threat of a removal of MFN status increased. In all this, the role of Deng Xiaoping has been critical, first in rejecting conservative demands for a rigidification of Chinese foreign policy, and then in accepting some of the reformers’ proposals for concessions to the United States.


But Sino-American relations may have improved more slowly than Chinese leaders had calculated. It is highly likely that Beijing was alarmed by the collapse of congressional support for relations with China, and by the prospects for a withdrawal of MRN status. Chinese officials came only gradually to understand that American public opinion was pressing not for a resumption of Sino-American relations, as they had assumed would be the case, but for even stronger sanctions against China. In Addition, Chinese leaders were disturbed by reports that, as relations between Washington and Moscow improved, American policymakers were assigning less strategic importance to China than was the case in the past. [22]

In the late spring and summer of 1990, therefore, Beijing decided to make additional gestures to the United States of the sort long favored by the reformers, including the release of more political dissidents, an agreement on the fate of Fang Lizhi, and the acknowledgement of common interests with Washington with regard to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Since these decisions could only have been made with the approval of China’s paramount leader, they imply that Deng Xiaoping had been persuaded to renounce some of the positions of the tough internationalists in favor of greater flexibility toward Washington.

In short, an examination of the major features of Chinese foreign policy since the Tiananmen Incident reveals a fairly clear pattern. The tendency has been to shift away from the policies advocated by the hard-liners, and toward a blend of the approaches associated with the reformers and the tough internationalists. In particular, policy toward the United States has become increasingly accommodating since the spring of 1990, as the threat of a removal of MFN status increased. In all this, the role of Deng Xiaoping has been critical, first in rejecting conservative demands for a rigidification of Chinese foreign policy, and then in accepting some of the reformers’ proposals for concessions to the United States.


The above analysis suggests that the United States must walk a tightrope in its policy toward China. Excessive sanctions may play into the hands of the country’s hard-liners, who can use them to support their arguments that the United States seeks to interfere directly in China’s internal affairs, that Chinese intellectuals and reformers serve as American agents in this regard, and that strategic and economic ties with the United States should be minimized. This is one reason why the majority of Chinese reformers have urged Washington to extend most-favored-nation status for China, as long as the internal political situation in the country does not deteriorate. In addition, repeated assertions that China is now unimportant to the United States give more moderate leaders in Beijing little reason to propose further concessions to restore Sino-American ties. If the United States is not prepared to devote much energy or resources to a relationship with China, they ask, why should Beijing agree to make any domestic or foreign gestures to improve its image in the United States?

On the other hand, an excessively conciliatory policy reinforces the new of the tough internationalists that China retains considerable international leverage, and that it need make few concessions in its foreign policy or domestic affairs to return to business as usual with the West. The muted rhetoric of the Bush Administration, and particularly the two Scowcroft visits to China in 1989, may have unintentionally supported this assessment in China. The first, secret, visit implied to Chinese leaders that the Bush Administration was prepared to deal with China despite its assurances to the American public that it had suspended high-level official dialogue. The toasts and statements issued by the American delegation on the second visit may also have inflated the Chinese leaders’ sense of their country’s importance to the United States.[23]. This may help explain why the Chinese response to the Bush Administration’s concessions in December and January was less forthcoming than the White House had anticipated.

Instead, American policy should convey the message that the United States has no intention of directly interfering in Chinese internal affairs, supporting one leadership faction against another, or prescribing a particular economic or political model for China. But Washington should make clear that it will continue to criticize Beijing’s violations of universally recognized human rights and will impose or maintain sanctions as the situation in China warrants. Washington also needs to make clear that China remains economically and strategically important to the United States, but the Soviet-American détente, together with the Tiananmen Incident, have eliminated the special standing that China enjoyed in American public opinion throughout the 1980s. In short, American policy should attempt to vindicate the analysis of China’s own reformers: that the United States is willing to work together with China to promote its modernization, but can do so extensively and enthusiastically only insofar as China resumes political and economic reform.


[1] The data on tourism are drawn from a communiqué of the State Statistical Bureau carried by Xinjua News Agency (hereafter cited as Xinhua), February 20, 1990, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report: China (hereafter cited as FBIS: China), March 7, 1990, pp. 37–43. Data on direct foreign investment are from Xinhua, July 23, 1990 (FBIS: China, July 25, 1990, p. 36). Data on foreign lending were obtained in discussions in Beijing in February 1990.

[2] For a Hong Kong report on this point of view, see China Pai (Hong Kong), No 153, April 10, 1990, pp. 42–46 (FBIS: China, April 27, 1990, pp. 15–18).

[3] Wen Wei Po (Hong Kong), May 28, 1989, p. 1 (FBIS: China, May 31, 1989, pp 2–3).

[4] See, For example, South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), January 6, 1990, pp. 1, 8 (FBIS: China, January 8, 1990, pp. 7–8); and Cheng Ming (Hong Kong), No. 148, February 1, 1990, pp. 6–8 (FBIS: China, January 24, 1990, pp. 1–3).

[5] Of China’s highest ranking leaders, the hardest line toward the United States has been taken by Song Ping, a member of the Standing committee of the Politburo who was previously responsible for the party’s organization work. See Xinhua, August 22, 1989 (FBIS: China, August 23, 1989, pp. 15–18). The advocates of a tough public position toward the Soviet Union have reportedly included party elders Wang Zhen and Deng Liqum. See South China Morning Post, January 6, 1990, pp. 1, 8 (FBIS: China, January 8, 1990, pp. 7–8); and Cheng Ming (Hong Kong), No. 150, April 1, 1990, pp. 6–8 (FBIS: China, April 3, 1990, pp. 6–9), January 8, 1990, pp. 7–8); and Cheng Ming (Hong Kong), No. 150, April 1, 1990, pp. 6–8 (FBIS: China, April 3, 1990, pp. 6–9).

[6] Guangming Ribao, February 16, 1990, p. 3 (FBIS: China, March 15, 1990, pp. 23–25).

[7] This position was apparently expressed at a conference of Chinese ambassadors in July 1989, called to discuss the implications of the Tiananmen Incident for Chinese foreign policy. See Ming Pao (Hong Kong), July 21, 1989, p. 1 (FBIS: China, July 21, 1989, p. 10).

[8] Shijie zhishi, No. 18, September 1988, pp. 4–6 (FBIS: China, October 13, 1988, pp. 5–8).

[9] See, for example, Shijie jingji daobao, December 5, 1988, pp. 1, 3 (FBIS: China, December 16, 1988, pp. 5–6).

[10] Tang Tai (Hong Kong), No. 13, February 24, 1990, pp. 35–36 (FBIS: China, February 28, 1990, pp. 7–9); No. 14, March 3, 1990, pp. 17–18 (FBIS: China, March 7, 1990, pp. 5–8); and No. 15, March 10, 1990, pp. 20–21 (FBIS: China, March 16, 1990, pp. 6–9).

[11] This view was expressed in an internal report, prepared by a research institution in Beijing, that was made available to the Beijing correspondent of the New York Times and reported in that newspaper on October 5, 1989, p. A19.

[12] Cheng Ming, No. 151, May 1, 1990, pp. 6–8 (FBIS: China, May 1, 1990, pp. 12–14).

[13] The prevailing interpretation, however, was that the experience of the 19th century showed that China needed economic and scientific contacts with the West, so long as a powerful central government could ensure that those relationships were mutually beneficial. See the analysis in Hong Kong Standard, June 15, 1990, p. 9 (FBIS: China, June 15, 1990, pp. 21–22).

[14] Cheng Ming, No. 150, April 1, 1990, pp. 6–8 (FBIS: China, April 3, 1990, pp. 6–9).

[15] The resistance to Li’s visit to Moscow is discussed in Cheng Ming, No. 151, May 1 1990, pp. 6–8 (FBIS: China, May 1, 1990, pp. 12–14).

[16] The Washington Post, July 17, 1990, p. A12.

[17] See the detailed account in Cheng Ming, No. 152, June 1, 1990, pp. 18–19 (FBIS: China, June 4, 1990, pp. 34–35).

[18] On the other hand, it has refused to cease its support for the Khmer Rouge in advance of such a settlement. Indeed, one intelligence report in late April 1990 suggested that the quantity and quality of Chinese arms deliveries to the Khmer Rouge had increased over the preceding six months (The New York Times, May 1, 1990, p. A13). For an analysis of the Chinese position on Cambodia, see Gary Klintworth, “The Outlook for Cambodia: The China Factor,” The Pacific Review, 3:1 (1990), pp. 70–72.

[19] But there continue to be intelligence reports of transfers of both Chinese shorter-range missiles and chemical weapons to the region. See The New York Times, March 30, 1990, p. A7; and The New York Times, June 7, 1990, p. A15.

[20] As of early September 1990, however, China has opposed the use of military force to enforce the embargo of Iraq, and has seemed sympathetic to the dispatch of emergency food and medical supplies to Iraq. On the latter point, see The New York Times, September 7, 1990, pp. A1, A8.

[21] Wei Po, April 4, 1990, p. 2 (FBIS: China, April 6, 1990, pp. 2–3).

[22] Chinese informants have said that analysts in Beijing were particularly impress by an article by Nicholas Kristof, entitled “Suddenly China Looks Smaller in The World,” The New York Times, March 27, 1990, p. A15. They have also revealed that Chinese leaders were surprised and disappointed by the minimal attention devoted by the America press to Li Peng’s visit to the Soviet Union in April.

[23] As reported by Xinhua, Scowcroft told Deng Xiaoping that President Bush “still regards Deng as a friend forever.” See Xinhua, December 9–10, 1989 (FBIS: China, December 11, 1989, pp. 1–4). Informed Chinese sources also said privately in Beijing in June 1990 that General Scowcroft told Chinese leaders that recent international developments had made China more important to the United States than ever before. For the Chinese reaction, see Banyuetan, No. 1, January 1, 1990, pp. 14–15 (FBIS: China, February 6, 1990, pp. 2–3), which claimed that the Scowcroft visit represented the victory of the “justified struggle [China] waged with moral integrity against the U.S. side.”

Harry Harding is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies program at The Brooking Institution. He is the author of China and Northeast Asia: The Political Dimension (1988), China’s Second Revolution: Reform After Mao (1987), and other works on Chinese domestic affairs, Chinese foreign relations, and American policy toward East Asia.