China—Tiananmen Square —the U.S. Response

China—Tiananmen Square —the U.S. Response

Thirty years ago, Chinese troops stormed Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ruthlessly dispersing what remained of tens of thousands of demonstrators who had been occupying it – and demanding political reforms – for more than a month. In the United States, the outrage to this event was sharp and widespread. President George Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, chronicled their behind-the-scenes maneuvering to manage this crisis in their 1998 book, “A World Transformed” (published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.).

Here are some key excerpts from the immediate aftermath:


I had been watching the events in China with considerable apprehension, but the brutality of the final crackdown after weeks of comparative toleration caught me by surprise. The first and obvious point was to show that we considered the military crackdown to be unacceptable and to frame a public statement. I wanted a measured response, one aimed at those who had pushed for and implemented the use of force: the hard-liners and the Army. I didn’t want to punish the Chinese people for the acts of their government. I believed that the commercial contacts between our countries had helped lead to the quest for more freedom. If people have commercial incentives, whether it’s China or in other totalitarian systems, the move towards democracy becomes inexorable. For this reason, I wanted to avoid cutting off the entire commercial relationship…

We discussed appropriate language for a statement and decided on a list of retaliatory measures, and I went to the press briefing room to announce them. They included the suspension of all government to government sales and commercial exports of weapons, suspensions of visits between US and Chinese military leaders, and sympathetic review of requests by Chinese students in the United States to extend their stays. We would also offer humanitarian and medical assistance through the Red Cross to those injured during the assault.

I felt confident we were taking the right steps. I had a keen personal interest in China and thought I understood it reasonably well, enough to closely direct our policy toward it.

President Bush addressing media in the White House press briefing room on June 5, 1989, detailing the early American response to the Tiananmen Square crisis.
President Bush updates his Cabinet on developments related to China and the Tiananmen Square crisis on June 5, 1989.


Later in the morning of June 5, we arranged a meeting with Chinese students studying the United States, to symbolize our solidarity. There was a previously schedule session that afternoon with the congressional bipartisan leadership, to allow President Bush to review his just-completed European trip. He used the occasion to denounce the Chinese actions and outline the steps already taken in response. The leadership supported his cautious—on this occasion even Helms.The President was unwilling to leave our response completely negative. He wanted to communicate with the Chinese leaders, both so as not to sever contact at such a critical time or to try to explain to them the enormity, in the eyes of the world, of what they had done. I strongly agreed arguing that we had too much invested in the China situation to throw it away with one stroke. After some discussion he decided to phone Deng, an extraordinary measure in that direct calls to senior Chinese leaders were something we had never attempted before. But he was unable to get through.

President Bush, White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and NSC Senior Director for Southeast Asia Doug Paal meet with Chinese students in the Oval Office on June 5, 1989.

PRESIDENT BUSH—Diary Entry—June 5

I talked with Nixon, and he was saying, “don’t disrupt the relationship. What’s happened has been handled badly and is deplorable -but take a good look at the long haul.” I told him that I was not going to recall [Ambassador] Lilley and he thought that was good….The reports from China are still crazy….There are rumors that “Li Peng has been shot,” and rumors that “Deng was dead.” All of this tells me to be cautious and be calm.


I was frustrated the Chinese rebuffed my attempts to talk things out directly … If we couldn’t talk to Deng, I decided I would explain by letter how I felt and suggest the possibility of an emissary, to try to get the relationship back on track, however gradually. I wanted a letter straight from my heart, so I composed it myself:

Dear Chairman Deng:

I write this letter with a heavy heart. I wish there were some way to discuss this matter in person, but regrettably that is not the case. First, I write in a spirit of genuine friendship, this letter coming as I’m sure you know from one who believes with a passion that good relations between the United States and China are in the fundamental interests of both countries …

It is with that in mind that I write to you asking for your help in preserving this relationship that we both think is very important. I have tried very hard not to inject myself into China’s internal affairs. I have tried very hard not to appear to be dictating in any way to China about how it should manage its internal crises. I am respectful of the differences in out two societies and in out two systems …

I have great reverence for Chinese history, culture and tradition. But I ask you as well to remember principles on which my young country was founded. Those principles are democracy and freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of assemblage, freedom from arbitrary authority. It is the reverence for those principles which inevitably affects the way Americans view and react to events in other countries. It is not a reaction of arrogance or a desire to force others to our beliefs, but of simple faith in the enduring value of those principles and their universal applicability …

Based on the principles I have described above, the actions I took as President of the United States could not be avoided. As you know the clamor for stronger action remains intense. I have resisted that clamor, making clear that I did not want to see destroyed this relationship that you and I have worked hard to build. I explained to the American people that I did not want to unfairly burden the Chinese people through economic sanctions….

I have thought of asking you to receive a special emissary who could speak with total candor to you representing my heartfelt convictions on these matters. If you feel such an emissary would be helpful, please let me know and we will work cooperatively to see that his mission is kept in total confidence.
We must not let the aftermath of the tragic recent events undermine a vital relationship patiently built over the past seventeen years. I would, of course, welcome a personal reply to this letter. This matter is too important to be left to our bureaucracies.

As I said above, I write with a heavy heart: but I also write with frankness reserved for respected friends.


George Bush

Within 24 hours President Bush received a reply from Deng, who accepted his idea of a personal emissary. President Bush chose General Scowcroft as his emissary, to be joined by Assistant Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger. The story of their Secret Mission will be revealed in our next blog posting.