Don't Let Europe Forget Tiananmen or Zhao Ziyang

Report Asia

Don't Let Europe Forget Tiananmen or Zhao Ziyang

January 21, 2005 7 min read
John Tkacik
Former Senior Research Fellow
John is a former Senior Research Fellow.

We now know how the bureaucrats in the European Commission will mark the death of China's reformist leader Zhao Ziyang, who was purged in 1989 when he opposed the Communist Party's decision to crush the democracy movement at Tiananmen in 1989: They will apologize to China's new leaders for making such a fuss about it. The European Commission is planning to end the arms embargo it placed on China as a symbol of its revulsion at the bloodshed of June 1989 and open an entirely new "strategic partnership" with Asia's communist superpower. But Europe's citizens are not as cynical as the "Eurocracy," and deft diplomacy by incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could still save the Atlantic Alliance and keep pressure on Beijing to improve its human rights practices.


To be successful, the Bush Administration must sidestep the European Commission and lobby the European Union's 25 individual member states, concentrating on the newer members who still remember the sting of communist tyranny. U.S. diplomats should point out the symbolic disgrace of lifting the arms embargo as Beijing continues to arrest dissidents and clergy. And the Administration should explain the host of reasons why lifting the embargo is a bad idea for Europe, not just the United States. In addition, Congress should resurrect legislation that would reduce U.S.-European defense cooperation in technologies that E.U. members share with China.


Washington's Resignation

As the 85-year-old Zhao Ziyang lay on his deathbed in a Beijing hospital last week with secret police stationed outside his door, the European Union's new Commissioner for External Affairs, Benita Ferraro-Waldner, visited Washington to break the news that the European Commission intends to end its Tiananmen-era arms embargo on China. The E.U.'s embargo, she said, would certainly be lifted by the beginning of the summer. She mentioned nothing about the Beijing regime's continuing and systematic violations of civil, political, and religious rights. Human rights don't seem to matter much in Brussels these days.


The State Department's reaction was a shrug of the shoulders. "I don't have anything further," a Department spokesman said in response to questioning, adding obliquely that Secretary of State Colin Powell's comments last December were the definitive U.S. policy on the matter. Powell said then only that the Europeans "are aware of our view that the embargo should remain . . . I understand it is a difficult issue for the European Union to wrestle with, and I know they're working on it."


The Pentagon reacted with a bit more alarm, but their concern was "the strategic balance in the Taiwan Strait," a worry that Ms. Ferraro-Waldner reassured her American friends the E.U. would accommodate, somehow. Clearly, the message that Ms. Ferraro-Waldner will take back to Brussels is that the Americans are now resigned to the evaporation of the embargo.


Yet on January 14, only a day after Ms. Ferraro-Waldner's meetings in Washington, the European Parliament in Strasbourg passed a resolution condemning China's violations of human rights in Tibet and its threats to Taiwan and calling on members to "maintain the European Union embargo on trade in arms with the People's Republic of China and not weaken national restrictions on such arms sales."


Economic Clout and Political Influence

Convincing the E.U. to relax its embargo is only the latest example of China's growing deftness at turning its economic clout into serious political influence. China's diplomats have found the key to persuading the Eurocrats in Brussels to compromise the traditional democratic values of the European Parliament in Strasbourg: money. More importantly, the Chinese are in the process of disrupting the Atlantic Alliance. They are forcing the Europeans to choose between Beijing and Washington, and the Europeans are tilting to Beijing.


The arms embargo was never really about arms. The Chinese get all they need, cheaper, from Russia. In a sense, all the embargo does is give Moscow greater price leverage with Beijing. The real issue at stake is China's "national dignity." Europe levied the embargo on the Chinese communists in response to Tiananmen, and the Chinese regime believes that after fifteen years the Europeans should forget about it. Now, with the deposed former Communist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang-the last hero of Tiananmen-dead, the new leadership in Beijing wants the Chinese people to forget, too.


A lot has happened in the years since the bloody 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement. China has become the E.U.'s second-largest export market, after the United States, and the world's third-largest trading nation, after the U.S. and Germany. With promises of vast trade largesse, Beijing has been wooing the E.U.'s two core members, France and Germany, to abandon the 1989 embargo as "outmoded" and enter into a new "comprehensive strategic partnership" with China. The Chinese have convinced eager French and German leaders that E.U. protests of Beijing's dismal human rights record are the sole remaining obstacle to this "partnership." And besides, as Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui pledged to European journalists in December, the arms embargo is just a "symbolic" policy and dropping it will not have any real effect because the embargo will be replaced by tighter controls on E.U. arms exports.


Unlike the Soviets in the 1980s, the Chinese have the economic clout to wrench the European Union's elbow and force Europe to accept China's human rights record as the norm for the "post Cold War" environment. In December, The Wall Street Journal has reported, a Chinese aviation official confirmed the linkage between China's contract to buy $1.3 billion worth of Airbus's new A-380 jumbo jets and the embargo's end with the comment, "It's understandable. Politics and economics can never be separated." Shortly afterwards, a French official confirmed that Chinese President Hu Jintao linked the Airbus deal and the embargo in a Sunday morning phone call to French President Jacques Chiraq. Mr. Chirac, it was reported, nodded vigorously into the phone, averring that France wanted to see the embargo ended "now."


Encouraging Bad Behavior

Although Washington has been fighting to delay the embargo's end for the past year, U.S. officials say privately they have little hope that it can be delayed much longer. And no wonder. Their main argument is U.S. self-interest: the only possible use China would have for European weapons is to fight U.S. forces aiding in the defense of Taiwan. This logic is unpersuasive to Europeans like French President Chirac who seem to see a grand strategic realignment of democratic Europe and communist China against the unilateralism of the democratic United States.


But consider this: Last week, when Britain's foreign secretary Jack Straw sympathized with Chinese complaints that they were being "lumped in" with such other dictatorships as "Zimbabwe and Burma," Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, and a host of lesser-known human and civil rights groups in the Atlantic Community all issued shocked press releases. Mr. Straw's comments baffled human rights activists across Europe who can document quite exactly how the Chinese communist regime parallels the Burmese and Zimbabwean despotisms.


E.U. leaders tried to persuade their Chinese counterparts at the Brussels summit to ease up on political and religious repression. They pointed to the "importance of concrete steps in the field of human rights and reaffirmed their commitment to further enhance co-operation and exchanges in this field on the basis of equality and mutual respect" and hinted that "concrete steps" were needed to help justify easing the arms ban.


Frustrated Chinese leaders quickly followed up with a series of "concrete steps." Two days later, Beijing ordered the arrest of a well-known Protestant "house-church" pastor in the central Chinese city of Zhengzhou. Four days later, police detained three well-known dissident writers. After their release, the writers told American friends, police were stationed outside their doors and followed them and their families wherever they went, "walking just two or three steps behind." On December 20, The New York Times reported that Li Boguang, a prominent human rights activist who has aided farmers in lawsuits against the government, had been arrested. The same day, Chen Ming, editor of the underground samizdat magazine China Reform, was taken away by police. On Christmas Eve, Chinese police detained another veteran dissident writer, Yang Tianshui, in what had clearly become a post-summit crackdown on independent intellectuals. On January 6, police arrested 69-year old Roman Catholic bishop Jia Zhiguo, who at least was grateful that he had been able to spend Christmas with his flock. And these were only the cases that were reported in the Western press.


Steps for the Administration and Congress

If Bush Administration diplomats truly want to derail the E.U.'s efforts to lift the embargo, they should:

  • Ignore the European Commission in Brussels, where France and Germany dominate, and focus on E.U. member states, particularly the new ones that still feel the sting of communist tyranny. The embargo will remain in place as long as even a handful of members deny that there is a "consensus" to lift it.
  • Focus on the fact that the E.U. arms embargo was levied on Beijing for massive human rights abuses in 1989 and that since then the human rights situation in China has only gotten worse. Lifting the embargo will do nothing except tell the Chinese people the Europe has forgotten Tiananmen.
  • Highlight China's record of conventional arms transfers to the third world, which have become a threat to Europe's armed forces. European countries have participated in peacekeeping operations in several of China's conventional weapons customers, such as Zaire, Sudan, Rwanda, Ivory Coast, and Zimbabwe (and even Liberia, which had diplomatic ties with Taiwan).
  • Finally, insist that dialogue on China be a part of all Atlantic Alliance strategic consultations and explore modalities for multilateral coordination of arms export policies.

Meanwhile, Congress should:

  • Pass language similar to that proposed last year to prohibit the Defense Department from buying products from foreign defense companies that sell China items similar to those found on the U.S. Munitions List for a period of five years. [1]

John J. Tkacik, Jr., is Research Fellow in China Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] See, for example, Rep. Hostettler's amendment to the 2005 National Defense Authorization Act, Sec. 1214, H.R. 4200 EH.


John Tkacik

Former Senior Research Fellow