In the U.S. Response to Tiananmen, a Delicate Balance Between Geopolitics and Human Rights
On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, Brent Scowcroft of the Scowcroft Group and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times join CFR President Richard N. Haass to discuss the events from the U.S. point of view. Kristof recounts his experience covering the protests as they unfolded in Beijing while Scowcroft discusses the sensitive political considerations of the U.S. response. The panelists also reflect on the prospects for democratic political reform in China in the future.
Brent Scowcroft on how the importance of the bilateral relationship with China affected the U.S. response to the Tiananmen Square massacre:
"I think we saw what we had was a relationship with the Chinese of about 20 years that had been steadily getting better, improving. And the relationship between China and Russia was steadily eroding. This was a world which was very useful to us. Was it really democracy versus the Politburo and so on? Not fundamentally. It was geopolitics, basically."
Brent Scowcroft on China's resistance to democratic reform:
"The Chinese seem to me to be fundamentally fearful of disruption: civil war, chaos and so on. That deep down, they know they've got problems with their political system. My sense is that they're suspicious of democracy because it tends to be chaotic, and they don't know exactly what to do. And they've solved their economic problem in a dramatic and, for the time being, successful way. But they haven't dealt with their political problem."
Nicholas Kristof on China's continuing control over political freedoms:
"New Tiananmens kind of begin all the time. But what happens is, that first night of the Hu Yabong protest in Beijing University, they go in and they detain those students and cut if off. And when they see people who are potential threats, organizing commemorations of Tiananmen, for example, they arrest them and they question them. And so I think they're very, very careful to avoid letting it get to the stage when anybody is anywhere near Tiananmen Square."
HAASS: Well, good morning and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations symposium on the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. I'm Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and I would like to thank all of you for joining us on this glorious Monday morning here in New York.
Now, we have two sessions today offering perspectives from both the U.S. and China on the events in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989. First, to speak to America's perspective are Brent Scowcroft. Brent was national security advisor at the time to then-president George H.W. Bush, 41. And Nick Kristof, whose reporting from inside the square won him nothing less than the Pulitzer Prize. Full disclosure, I work for and with -- and every now and then against -- Brent Scowcroft, at the time. But I was working on the Middle East rather than the far one. And I -- and also, in the department of full disclosure, I am a regular reader of Nick Kristof''s column and every now and then I even agree with him.
After this, the second session this morning we'll hear from Louisa Lim, who's in Beijing with NPR and in, what, two days out with a new book about the subject of this morning. And from Xiao Qiang, who's a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and is also the founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times. And they'll look at things more from the Chinese perspective, and this second session will be presided over by one of this country's leading hands, Orville Schell.
This first session is designed to highlight the always-present tension along what many of us believe is the principal fault line of American foreign policy. And by that I mean the fault line between interests and values or realism and idealism. And the events of June 1989 are -- are a quarter of a century old now, but when they took place it was less than two decades after the opening of U.S.-China relations. June 1989 was also less than six months after the 41st president took office. The Berlin wall was still up dividing the two Germanys. And it was unclear at the time where Mikhail Gorbachev was taking the Soviet Union.
And I say all this because context always matters. And at the time, the strategic rationale for U.S.-Chinese relations to give the United States, among other things, some leverage vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and to develop influence over this trajectory of a potentially emerging great power, was still very much in evidence. And the second session this morning, as I said, is more about how things look from the -- the Chinese side. And today's New York Times has a fun -- fascinating front page article about how one Chinese general opposed the use of its military to put down what he described as essentially a political matter.
And the story also reveals the extraordinary confusion and disarray on the Chinese side. So what comes through is the intensity in the moment. That this was not simply something that was limited to the square, as important as it was, but really potentially threatened the entire political order of -- of -- of China. Indeed, many in the Communist Party thought that what was at stake was nothing less than its future, and the country's.
So today's symposium, which looks at both the American and Chinese perspectives, is illustrative of the Council on Foreign Relations' ongoing commitment to the study of history, not simply for history's sake but also for deriving policy lessons for today. And everything we are going to be talking about has tremendous relevance if one just takes a second and thinks about what is going on in China, despite the -- you know, many decades of extraordinary economic growth. That growth has now slowed significantly, and what we're seeing is protests mounting in that country over official accountability, over the environment.
We're seeing significant moves in the name of anticorruption by the -- by the government. We're seeing tightening controls on the -- the Internet and on public demonstrations more broadly. So the kinds of issues that came to the fore 25 years ago are not simply, again, historical. And in the United States, we are in the -- a constant debate about the trajectory and direction of this country's relationship with China. The pivot, or the rebalance, that was interested, at least rhetorically, seven -- several years ago is meant to hedge against or, if need be, contain Chinese power. But it's meant to do so in a way that does not alienate China to the point that cooperation comes to be overwhelmed by -- by competition or confrontation.
And, again, there's the question of how do issues of -- of democracy and human rights, how do they figure, how should they figure into the whole of U.S.-China relations. The scenario for this morning is, we're -- we're going to begin the discussions with a brief excerpt of the film from -- from Frontline, which describes the events of 25 years ago and their aftermath. And this can be viewed in full on pbs.org/frontline. Then I'll begin with a conversation with Brent Scowcroft and Nick Kristof.
Then we'll open it up to you, our members. And then we'll go to the second session. Just want to say one other thing about something available to understand the events of 25 years ago. Foreign Affairs magazine, which the council publishes, has a new e-book out entitled, appropriately enough, Tiananmen and After. You can get that on -- on foreignaffairs.com. The good news for you, if you're already a subscriber, is you can get it for free. The not so good news if you are not a subscriber is that it will cost you. But it will be modest.
So with that, why don't we, as we used to say, roll the film. And then we will have our conversation up here with Brent Scowcroft and Nick Kristof.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ANNOUNCER: "Tonight on Frontline: Tiananmen Square, June 1989."
(UNKNOWN): "People started to scream at us, 'Take pictures, take video. Tell the world what's going on. They're killing innocent people."
ANNOUNCER: "In the wake of a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators, one solitary man defied the awesome power of the Chinese state."
(UNKNOWN): "This man just went out, and he said, 'Stop,' and the tanks stopped."
ANNOUNCER: "But who was he?"
(UNKNOWN): "In a sense, he stood for the ordinary people."
ANNOUNCER: "And what happened to him?"
(UNKNOWN): "He just melted into the crowd, and he was gone."
ANNOUNCER: "Tonight, veteran filmmaker, Antony Thomas, investigates the fate of this heroic figure."
(UNKNOWN): "For over a year we also followed every lead."
ANNOUNCER: "And explores the bold gamble of China's leaders to quell the spirit of Tiananmen."
(UNKNOWN): "How do you prevent the fire from spreading?"
ANNOUNCER: Through their open embrace of capitalism."
(UNKNOWN): "It is an amazing miracle what has happened since 1989."
ANNOUNCER: "Tough political repression."
(UNKNOWN): "If you've ever seen security people manhandle a Chinese citizen, they're really brutal."
ANNOUNCER: "And strict censorship of the media."
(UNKNOWN): "But not one single image of Tank Man."
(UNKNOWN): "(Inaudible) to U.S. companies like Google, Yahoo!, Cisco and Microsoft have compromised their duties as responsible corporate citizens."
(UNKNOWN): "This was not something that we did enthusiastically or not something that we're proud of at all."
ANNOUNCER: "Tonight on Frontline, the story behind one of the most powerful images of our time."
(UNKNOWN): "What this young man did was, in effect, change the world."
ANNOUNCER: "A search for the meaning and the mystery of the Tank Man."
"Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The largest public space in the world, created on an inhuman scale. The monumental public buildings that line the edges, and the vast treeless spaces in between, speak of the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state. The atmosphere here is edgy. Even with permits and government minders, our filming is constantly interrupted."
"Soldiers, policemen, men in plainclothes all demand our papers. The authorities here are afraid of cameras. They know their power. They have hundreds of them trained on Tiananmen Square; their cameras. Cameras in other hands are considered dangerous, and with good reason. This place can be a powder keg."
"On a June night in 1989, Tiananmen Square was a war zone. The People's Liberation Army fought its way into Beijing from four directions, with orders to converge on the square. Unarmed citizens and students faced armored personnel carriers, tanks, and soldiers armed with semiautomatic weapons. By 5:30 a.m. on June the 4th, 1989 the army's mission had been accomplished."
(UNKNOWN): "Gradually, the dawn came up."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HAASS: The past is prologue. Let's go to Nick. You were there. Looking at your age, I think it's your junior year abroad, covering that for the New York Times as an intern or something. But tell us what it was. Just set the scene, if you will, for those of us who weren't there 25 years ago.
KRISTOF: Sure. Well, the one thing that everybody agreed in early 1989 was that protests were very unlikely. That people were not interested in politics, students weren't engaged and that protests weren't gonna happen. And then April 15, 1989, Hu Yabong, he's -- you know, students don't particularly love him, but they feel he's been treated unfairly and they begin to...
HAASS: And he was symbolic of the reform.
KRISTOF: Yes. Although, you know, he was not a wild-eyed reformer himself. But he'd been pushed out for not being harsh enough in the 1986-87 protests. And the -- so there began to be protests honoring Hu Yabong on the campuses, some signs saying the wrong man died. And then that gradually leveraged into something broader: protests about corruption, about lack of opportunities, economic mismanagement. And then the -- pretty soon the Gorbachev visit was gonna happen, which meant that there were a million more reporters in Beijing and TV cameras in Beijing there to cover the end of the Sino- Soviet split. And -- well, what was much more engaging than covering Gorbachev was covering all these student protests. And that also limited the ability of the Chinese government to crack down on the protests and stop it. And so you had the students taking over Tiananmen. The government tried hard line approaches. They had -- there was a editorial in the People's Daily on April 26 which was just over-the- top harsh. And that just galvanized people to be -- be more angry.
The government -- then there was a -- a power struggle. Zhao Ziyang took advantage of this to try to edge out Li Peng and -- and Deng Xiaoping himself and -- and -- and become the supreme leader. That did not go over well with Deng or with Li. And the -- Deng and the others decided they were gonna use military force. Police had been unsuccessful. They'd sent -- decided on martial law. They sent in unarmed troops, and the students and citizens blocked them all over Beijing. Humiliating for the army, humiliating for the Party.
And then quite soon, Deng and the others ousted Zhao Ziyang, put him under house arrest, and prepared the way for force, with troops opening fire -- and that actually happened after a couple of skirmishes in the previous few days -- on the night of June 3. And -- and it -- I guess the other thing I'd just say is that, you know, we think of it as about Tiananmen Square. It wasn't just Tiananmen Square. It was all over Beijing. It was -- the worst violence was coming -- where they came in from the west, around Mushi Di, in front of some apartments in which senior Party officials lived.
And the troops just mowed people down with AK-47s. They aimed at people who were watching on balconies. We had a friend -- a Party official who adored the Party, had given his life to it -- his son, in the morning of the 4th, was bicycling to work four miles from Tiananmen Square. No protest, nothing around. Some soldiers shot him in the back and killed him. And, you know, that -- things like that were kind of happening. Not just all around Beijing, but really in many parts of the country, as well. Lots of violence in -- in -- in Shanghai and Chengdu, in Shia (ph) and all over.
HAASS: OK, Brent, let's move a few thousand miles. So here you are, you're less than six months into the new administration, in your office in the -- the -- the West Wing. To what extent did any of this -- was any of this predicted? To what extent -- how did this look, if you will, from to vantage point of a new -- a new administration. Including, by the way, the fact that this president probably knew as much about China, certainly, as anyone who ever occupied the Oval Office, since he headed up the U.S. liaison office in China for -- for some time. So what was -- say something about the initial take in Washington?
SCOWCROFT: Well, the initial take was, first of all, the president realized we were taking -- he was taking office at a very unusual time. There were -- there were stories that the Cold War was ending. We didn't think so. But it was a very complicated periods (sic) of time. And we had been very supportive of the general evolution of the U.S.-China relationship. Which started, really, about the Soviet Union. It was about the threat of the Soviet Union in Asia. And we agreed to combat that. Now that was the relationship, and it -- it -- it wasn't -- it wasn't concerned with politics, it wasn't concerned with anything like that. Well now, this was possibly changing because the Soviet Union seemed to be changed. So when -- when President Bush came into office we really wanted to visit China before Gorbachev got there to sort of shore up this relationship which time was maybe eroding. But how? A new president can't come into office and go visit China. But fortunately for international politics, Emperor Hirohito died.
My guess is, the president never would have gone to that funeral if it hadn't been the opportunity to visit China and to shore up that relationship before -- before Gorbachev came in with whatever he was. So it was that kind of a complicated relationship.
HAASS: And just the more specifics of what happened in June. Do you recall anything from the U.S. intelligence community or from our embassy in Beijing or anything else that suggested that something big was coming or even something small was coming?
SCOWCROFT: You mean as the crackdown.
HAASS: Even before. I mean, you had like -- people were in the square, what, for five, six, seven weeks? Like was this the -- or the idea that China might face a major challenge to its own political stability and orientation?
HAASS: Was this -- so this...
SCOWCROFT: No, and we were -- and we were amazed that the occupation of the square went on and on and on without the people being pushed out. Can you imagine that in New York, for example, or in Washington? A major hub of the city being in the hands of students for two, three months? No. It was -- it was striking. And we -- we thought, sort of, that it was about over the -- some of the enthusiasm of the students was wearing down a little, and there weren't as many as there were in March. And so maybe this was ending. And then all of a sudden came the explosion.
HAASS: Nick, to what extent -- you know, based on your experience there at the time, was it -- were the people in the square only thinking about China? Or to what extent was there a sense that the whole world was watching? To what extent did they hope that people in Washington, elsewhere would react? And if so, react in certain ways?
KRISTOF: I think there was a strong sense that the world was watching, that that provided some protection. People were listening to VOA and BBC. I remember at one point asking -- talking to some students on the square. And one offered some -- you know, what seemed to be some sort of high level intelligence about -- I forget what it -- exactly it was. But military movements or something, and getting all the details. And then I sort of (inaudible). I said. "So how exactly do you know this?" And they said, "Oh, I heard it on VOA." And, you know, I -- the Goddess of Democracy was famously erected there as this sort of international emblem. But, you know, it's also fair to say the students were -- and the workers, who increasingly joined up, too -- you know, they weren't always incredibly articulate about what exactly they wanted. Their agenda was unclear. They were -- it was much more obvious what they were angrier at than what they wanted to establish.
HAASS: So (inaudible), you mentioned for a second they thought the world might give them some protection. Did they actually -- it's really a two-part question. Did -- did they think that they were in some way safe, and did they ever imagine that what befell them was going to befall them?
KRISTOF: Well, I mean, they were, indeed, protected to some degree. The Gorbachev visit -- I mean, the -- they -- the crackdown would have happened much earlier if it hadn't been for the international presence. And I think a lot of the students were also a little naive and perhaps misled a little bit by propaganda about how great the Party is. And this -- and -- and also this huge outpouring on the part of the people to -- kind of to support them and protect them and bring them things. And from Party officials.
The -- the liberal faction was sending envoys out to the students in support of them. It was clear that Zhao Ziyang was sympathetic to them. And I think that gave them encouragement. But there were also plenty of people -- not so much students, but sort of older ones -- who said, "Oh, this is gonna end with bloodshed." And people were -- they were saying that all along.
Simon Lays (ph) -- I mean, not a Chinese, but a -- a -- you know, a China watcher in Australia, I remember very early on at the beginning of the protest some interviewer asked him, "So, you know, extraordinary. These student protesters demanding democracy. So how is this gonna end? Is democracy gonna come to China?" And he said, "Oh, it'll end with a massacre." An interviewer said, you know, "What?" And he said, "No, it'll -- it'll end with a massacre." And he was right.
SCOWCROFT: Well, I think I don't disagree with any -- any of that. But I think there is -- there is an element here which changed it all. And -- and that was, as Nick said, the first troops that went in -- first of all, the Politburo had a -- had a big -- an internal -- there was an internal argument going on between what we could call liberals and conservatives. How do you handle this? And that went back and forth for all this time.
Then they decided they would clean up the square. And they sent some troops in, and the troops, if you will, fraternized with the demonstrators. My own -- this is just my personal sense is, that really panicked the Politburo. They could no longer rely on the troops. And so I think they gave the order bring forces in from outside Beijing and you just march through that square and you kill anybody who's in the way. Because they wanted to restore the sense -- because they ruled by the army, the loyalty of the army. HAASS: Did -- two questions. Did we have a horse in this race? Did we, sitting in Washington, have clear preferences for how we wanted this to turn out in terms of outcome? I mean, for example, were their people saying this is an opportunity for China to finally become democratic, and if that happens this would be much better for how they treat their own people and how they act in the region and the world? Did the United States have, if you will, policy preferences?
SCOWCROFT: That's a very good question. And I would say yes, but not in the way you're talking about. What -- what I think we saw we had was a relationship with the Chinese of about 20 years that had been steadily getting better, improving. And the relationship between China and Russia was steadily eroding. This was a world which was very useful to it. Was it really democracy versus the Politburo and so on? Not fundamentally. It was geopolitics, basically.
HAASS: Did we see the crackdown to any -- you mentioned the first introduction of military and police turn out to be ineffectual from the point of view of the Party. They then brought in the -- the -- the mobilization, shall we say, was stunning in -- in terms of scale. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops were then mobilized. Did we, at that point, say to ourselves, wow, a massacre's coming; the United States ought to weigh in on human rights grounds or political grounds, or both, to try to head that off? Was that...
SCOWCROFT: Yeah. Well, I -- I wouldn't say try to head it off. But because it was a quick cleaning out of the square. But how do we respond to the brutality of what happened.
HAASS: So preempting it, or trying to preempt it, was -- was really not a serious option.
HAASS: So then the question was -- then we're into the how to respond part.
SCOWCROFT: Now -- now -- now what do we do? And the president, early on, said we -- we have to react. This is outrageous, we cannot not react. But I don't want to destroy this budding relationship with the Chinese because it's extremely important to the United States in the long run. So what do you do?
HAASS: So what did we do?
SCOWCROFT: Well, the first thing he said -- the president loves to -- he loves to -- the first president who loved to use the telephone to talk to people. So he said, "I want to call the leaders." So we put in a call. And the answer came back the Chinese leadership does not talk on the telephone.
So the president said -- we had -- we had already imposed a lot. We had a -- a gentle military relationship with -- with the Chinese aimed at the Soviet Union. We cut all that off, and -- to demonstrate our alarm with what...
HAASS: You mean our military-to-military relationship. As little...
SCOWCROFT: Yeah. We had pretty much ended that relationship. But the president didn't want to go any farther. So he said, "All right, you go over and talk to the Chinese ambassador." I did. I knew him quite well because he had -- he had run the Chinese delegate for the advance trip for Nixon.
SCOWCROFT: Which was the first trip I ever took to China. So I -- I knew him. And I went over there, and I said, "You know, you've said you won't talk on the telephone. The president is prepared to send somebody over." And -- and he said, "Who would it be?" Or no, he called and said who would it be. And he said, "Well, we'll send General Scowcroft." And he said, "Fine, we'll do that." And that brought about the trip.
HAASS: OK, I want to talk about the trip in a minute.
But let me go back to Nick, and your perspective from the (inaudible). Was there a sense, after people were killed in large numbers -- and I've seen everything from many, many hundreds to low thousands the numbers seem to be in the square -- a little bit uncertain.
KRISTOF: They're (inaudible). My -- my estimate is 400 to 800 killed. Some people think it's more than that.
HAASS: OK. Was there a sense there -- real bitterness that somehow -- that the world had been watching, the world then let them down? Was there a -- a feeling that the world didn't do nearly enough?
KRISTOF: There was, to some degree. But, I mean, so much of the outrage was directed at the Party itself that there wasn't all that much left to spare at the rest of the world. Nor was it obvious, really, what the rest of the world could do other than provide outrage. And there was indeed a lot of outrage.
HAASS: The -- Brent's gonna talk for a second about the U.S., you know, reaction and all that. Do you remember, at the time, the -- the reaction in China to the U.S. reaction? Was there a sense that we had gotten it about right? That we -- or that we had been getting overly involved in what they saw as their sovereign internal matters? Was it -- were they pleasantly surprised that we didn't come down harder than we did? Do you have any recollection of how U.S. policy looked from Beijing?
KRISTOF: You know, nobody was particularly focused on U.S. policy or Japan policy. They were -- everybody was focused on internal Chinese political issues. So if you were a student, you were trying to figure out how you were gonna get through the inspections and examinations that followed. Everybody who was in the Party was going through examination -- every -- to -- to see who could stay in the Party. And from the point of view of the leadership, they certainly cared about U.S. relations and about economic relations. But what was paramount was the internal dynamic and figuring out, you know, who was gonna lead the Party and so on.
HAASS: So, Brent, you mentioned that you and your -- your -- your -- your great, good friend, then Deputy Secretary of State, Larry Eagleburger, were -- were dispatched several weeks later. How would you describe your mission? And say a little bit about what unfolded. It all didn't come out for another six or so months. Why don't you say something about the June visit to -- to China.
SCOWCROFT: Our mission was to preserve the fundamental sinews of the U.S.-China relationship. In other words, not to have a break. Because the -- the -- we would -- we were actually the first ones to -- to put on some -- some kind of sanctions, the military. The Europeans ended up with more than we had. But we were -- we had reacted fairly strongly, and the president did not want to destroy this gradually-budding relationship. So what do you do? And he decided on saying this (ph). But to do this publicly would have been right in the face of our -- of our sanctions and everything else.
HAASS: (Inaudible) also there was a lot of press and congressional pressure...
SCOWCROFT: Oh, yeah.
HAASS: ... to come down even harder.
SCOWCROFT: Absolutely, absolutely. So it was a dilemma for us.
SCOWCROFT: And -- and so he decided to -- to send Larry Eagleburger and I. And we went in a cargo plane. We went in a cargo plane because it was equipped for aerial refueling so we wouldn't have to land in Alaska and refuel and be discovered as going there. So we went all the way over without landing, and all the way without landing.
HAASS: Some day we look forward to the full story of that plane ride. But that will have to -- that will have to wait.
SCOWCROFT: But one little story about the plane ride. When I got to Beijing there was one meeting I had with them. And the president of China was a military man. Came up to me, and he said -- he said, "You're pretty lucky." He said, "You know, when you were flying in, I got a call from air defense forces in Shanghai that there's a plane approaching. Should they shoot it down?"
HAASS: In which case, today's event would have been a little bit different on multiple -- multiple levels.
Nick, you -- you know, sort of -- take you out of the square for a second, put you -- you know, you've written -- you write this column, and you've got a powerful voice about human rights several times a week. When you look at the U.S. response and try to respond, but yet preserve what Brent called a -- a budding relationship. And I would say probably the balance that the administration chose was more towards preserving the relationship than it was doing symbolic or non- symbolic sanctions.
Is it your sense that the U.S. got it about right? Or that we should have done things differently? And if we had gotten the mix differently it would, from your point of view, had -- had a salutary effect?
KRISTOF: I'm actually sympathetic to the approach we took for -- for a few reasons. I mean, in other cases I'd -- I certainly favor more of a response. In that case, I think we had very little leverage to improve (Inaudible) situation once it happened. I -- and the basic conundrum we faced was that anything we did to emphasize human rights tended to strengthen the hardliners. And so even later on, for several years, it was a dynamic where we would raise individual human rights cases and those people would then be released, in theory, to treat some illness. And that helped individuals.
On the other hand, it did, on balance, strengthen the -- the hardliners until the 1992 Deng Xiaoping trip to the -- to the south. And there was a real -- you know, there was a real push by some of the hardliners, after Tiananmen, to have a much tougher crackdown that would have made things worse for human rights and for U.S.-China relations. Including, there was some talk by the hardliners of attacking U.S. embassy properties where Fang Lizhi, the dissident, was hiding, and -- and -- and, you know, haul him out and put him on trial. And if that had been done, that would have been a catastrophe for U.S.-China relations, for human rights, for everything. HAASS: Brent, what was the debate like with -- you mentioned what the president wanted. Was there serious debate within the U.S. government over exactly how the respond, what ought to be the mix? Whether people, for example, who opposed you and Larry being sent at the time or wanted you to go with a very different message? Or was there pretty much consensus?
SCOWCROFT: It -- there was basically consensus. And I would say part of it was because the president was Mr. China. He knew more about China than anybody else in the administration because he lived there. And so he decided. He said this is -- this is too important to U.S. interests to respond to the anti-democratic aspect. So even if I get caught, in a way, for some -- I -- I want to do this because this relationship is too strong.
But, of course, I -- I want to do it. But if I can do it quietly it's a lot better. So it was that sort of thing. But there -- there wasn't a long debate about it. And, indeed, what I remember of it was the president called Jim Baker and said I'd like to send Brent over. And he said that's fine, but Larry Eagleburger, who was the deputy secretary, ought to go with him. Which was just fine. And we were to -- who could go and not be missed, if you will.
HAASS: I love straight lines like that.
SCOWCROFT: Yeah, never mind. Never mind.
HAASS: I shall show uncharacteristic -- (inaudible) this camera's here, I'll show uncharacteristic restraint. I'm gonna open it up to the members in a second. But let me get one last question for each.
Nick, you've done a lot of thinking about how journalists covered the events of Tiananmen, American and otherwise. What is -- what is your sense of -- how would you grade your -- your collective colleagues, if -- if you will, on this?
KRISTOF: I think we did a lot right. I think we got some important things wrong. I think what we covered we tended to cover pretty well. But there were some really important elements that we didn't cover. We tended to have much better ties to reformers than to hardliners, for somewhat obvious reasons; largely, you know, self- selection on the part of the hardliners. So we had pretty good insights into what the reformers were thinking almost -- almost no -- after about May 25 or so, when Zhao Ziyang, Biao Teng, these people, were put under house arrest we didn't really have any sense of what was happening.
We also -- I think there was some -- I think we sometimes over- romanticized the -- the protest as a democracy movement and we tended to use that as a shorthand. And it was very, very complex, and there were all kinds of things going on. You know, corruption, in particular, enraged people. I think we overemphasized -- I mean, I think when we look back at history I think they'll think we overemphasized what was happening in Beijing, and not enough what was happening in the rest of the country. There were -- there were protests in just about every county -- county seat in -- in -- in the country. It was extraordinary.
We exaggerated the degree of the risk of a civil war during the crackdown. And there was a -- a line for a few days that the 27th and 38th armies were gonna -- were gonna start fighting each other. That, in retrospect, was completely wrong. And I think we didn't talk enough to kind of the peasants who were filling the army and who basically bought the government narrative. And saw these people -- you know, saw their lives having gotten better, and feared chaos. The notion of -- of luan (ph), chaos, is this sort of -- for anybody who went through that period is -- is kind of terrifying.
And I think they -- I mean, I remember finally going out to interview a bunch of peasants, and asking them what they would have done if they'd been there in the square, in the army. And they said, "Oh" -- you know, "shoot, of course." And I think we didn't -- I think we didn't, you know, convey that aspect of China. For a couple years after Tiananmen I think we overdid the economic cost to the regime. That -- everything became part of the Tiananmen narrative, rather than acknowledging that there were many, many different narratives going on. So I guess that would be my -- my self- criticism.
HAASS: A phrase with some resonance.
Brent, last question then we'll open it up. Which is, OK, here it is 25 years later, and we know the ensuing 25 years of U.S.-China relations. So when you look at how we -- how the United States responded to events in -- in June of '89 against at backdrop of this -- the following two-and-a-half decades, is it your sense that that -- they are -- the conclusion that ought to be drawn is we got it essentially right? The -- if we were to have a do-over, a historical mulligan, we would not do it or we should not do it fundamentally different than the -- than the way we did it?
SCOWCROFT: I think basically that's correct. But we didn't know what was gonna happen or what would happen with the relationship with Russia. And...
HAASS: Still the Soviet Union, at the time.
SCOWCROFT: Still the -- still the Soviet Union at the time. And so I think if we had -- if we had been negative, more negative, about -- about China, and increased the sense of the Chinese that we had turned our backs on them, it might have repaired the Sino-Soviet relationship for a certain period of time. But I don't know, that's -- that's pure speculation.
HAASS: OK. Let's open it up. If people would wait for a microphone, give us their name and affiliation, be on your best behavior because we have C-Span covering us today.
Yes, ma'am, in the back. I don't have my glasses on, I can't see that far.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. And I -- I would like to thank the council for commemorating what happened in 1989. And just a reminder that type of session could not actually take place in Beijing or, frankly, anywhere across China other than Hong Kong. So it's a -- it's a reminder that it is important to market, and just how much that big lie around Tiananmen is still crippling the country today. I think we all want to see China advance.
And I wanted to ask Mr. Scowcroft if there was ever a consideration of -- or ever an effort to get the Chinese government to reverse the verdict, release the number of dead, and move forward. SCOWCROFT: There were suggestions that that would be the best thing to do. But having -- having made the decision, the basic decision, on Tiananmen Square that we would reach out to the Chinese and try to preserve the relationship. We didn't want to risk it, if you will, to that extent. I understand what your question's saying and no, we did not.
HAASS: Well, was there -- either one of you, was there ever a sense -- imagine the United States had pressed harder along the lines Mickie (ph) had said. Given China's own calculus in decision-making, whether it would have been wiser now, from our point of view -- let's put that aside -- do we think it would have worked? Do we think that China would have been in any way susceptible to those kinds of entreaties or pressures?
SCOWCROFT: No. Well, we thought clearly they -- they would not.
HAASS: So we would have paid a price...
SCOWCROFT: Because -- because it was obvious that there was an internal struggle going on inside the Chinese Politburo.
KRISTOF: There will be a reversal at some point, but it's gonna come internally.
QUESTION: Nick, you mentioned some underreported things going on. And I think one of the lesser-mentioned protest forces today is the environmental movement because its so remote and pervasive. There were 6,000 documented cell phone photos of mini-riots two years ago. Does the current leadership take it seriously, and are they aware that the -- the political marches in Dresden that brought down the Berlin wall started as an environmental movement in the basement of churches like Angela Merkel's father's church?
KRISTOF: You know, I think you're right both that the environmental movement is important and can be a challenge to the government. And also -- I -- I mean, I think the government is very aware of that risk. One of the reasons they put Dai Qing in -- in prison is because she was using environmental issues in what, at the time, seemed to be a kind of quasi-legitimate way to -- to raise public concerns and galvanize people. And they didn't want that kind of civil society.
And you're also right that right now in rural areas, when there are protests, you know, in villages it's because -- sometimes because the Communist Party village chief has stolen land or whatever else from people. But very often it's because some factory is dumping poison into the village water supply and the villagers are -- you know, they're fighting for their lives. And those protests are happening all over the country. I think government is very aware of it, but trying to also balance the economic growth against that.
HAASS: Yes, ma'am.
QUESTION: Thank you. My question is for Mr. Scowcroft. The -- the day, June 4, 1989 -- especially when looked at historically in hindsight -- was a day when a literal historic shift has taken place. There was the horror on -- of Tiananmen Square on one side. But at the same time, there was an election in Poland which literally voted communism out of office. And it was only appreciated a -- a little bit later how incredibly important that moment was. And it started this domino effect in all of eastern Europe.
And my question is, I remember this period as something schizophrenic because I worked at Human Rights Watch. And, on one hand, it was the horror of the massacres and, on the other hand, it was this great hope and joy in the Communist bloc. Could you talk about how it -- the period right after the massacres, or even the actual day, June 4, was perceived in the White House. Whether there was anything of the eastern Europe beginning there.
SCOWCROFT: Oh, yes, yes. There was clearly ferment in eastern Europe. And we were -- we were very much attuned to that. The Chinese were, as well. And they -- their initial response to Tiananmen Square was much more reserved than the Chinese general reaction; for example, when Ceausescu was assassinated. Because for the Chinese, what was going on in eastern Europe, they saw all these little liberal Gorbachevs in eastern Europe. But they weren't true to the faith, the Communist faith, anyway.
Ceausescu was a pillar of the old Communist regime. When he got assassinated, the China -- you could almost visibly see they were shocked. And they -- they clamped down on our relationship, as well. That scared them to death.
KRISTOF: Just to generalize, though, at the time -- 'cause -- remind me if my dates are wrong We also had the problems, at that point, with Panama, was it?
KRISTOF: So, I mean, this -- this -- what people often forget is, historically you take things out of context. You know, oh, June 4 in China. But at the White House at the time, you have, you know, 14 other things going on. And this didn't necessarily jump out of your inbox and say, "Pay attention to me."
SCOWCROFT: Exactly. Because eastern Europe was in a real foment at the time. And shortly after June, the president took a trip to Europe, which was really quite a remarkable trip. And the awakening of eastern Europe.
KRISTOF: I mean, it's also true that -- I think that China had real options in a way that eastern Europe did not. And that the Party could have moved toward greater democracy (ph). And I think that's Zhao Ziyang wanted to do. And it could have held elections and actually won them. It might have -- would -- you know, control in the news media, manipulating things to some degree. But it could have actually (Inaudible) -- took on some of the trappings of democracy and gained legitimacy in a way that was not an option in Poland or Romania, for example.
QUESTION: But -- but that leads again to the same question of whether either one of you think that the world, or the United States, somehow missed something of an opportunity. If you -- if -- if the outsiders had a reformist agenda with China. Whether things that might have been done that could have mad a difference. And maybe the answer is yes or not, but then -- but it would have had a tremendous cost, I think which is Brent's argument, with the strategic relationships. Or what -- or not. I mean, whether the two were necessarily juxtaposed that way.
SCOWCROFT: Well, I think, you know, there was an internal relationship inside China that was not true of, for example of the -- the Soviet Union. And Deng Ziaoping had made some dramatic changes, you know, typified by I don't care whether a -- a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. This was a fundamental decision in China to abandon economic Marxism in favor of national interests. So I -- you know, we don't know what would have happened. But my guess is it would have slowed down -- well, there'd been remarkably little evolution in China, but it would have slowed that down and perhaps brought back the earlier Chinese regimes that were more bloody.
KRISTOF: I think China could have -- I can imagine counterfactual in which China went a different direction. I mean, as -- you know, something similar happened in Mongolia and eastern Europe.
KRISTOF: The huniker (ph) ordered troops to fire and -- and it didn't work. And I can imagine -- and something similar in Mongolia. And I can imagine if Chun Yuan (ph) and Deng Xiaoping had, you know, died in late 1988, then Zhao Ziyang might have triumphed and you would have had an entirely different course of -- of -- of history in China. None of us would heard of, you know Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin or any of these people. But I don't think that that is something that we had the leverage to achieve. I think that was a knife edge that it was leaders in China who were determining.
HAASS: Sure, Steven (ph).
QUESTION: One lesson, Nick, I'm surprised you didn't draw on terms of journalist coverage was kind of, as today, there were some great journalists -- people who really, such as yourself -- gave us great coverage. And then there was some terrible inaccuracies. You know, the wuwar kysee (ph) being taken out to dinner, when they're reporting that there's a -- he's on the hunger strike. And not reporting that, I thought, was -- was -- was pretty bad, you know, really kind of undermined all kind of journalists in the future in terms of their reporting of China.
Brent, this went on for six, seven weeks. We didn't make any representations to the Chinese that there was a peaceful way to clear the square. We knew they didn't have riot equipment, fire hoses, things which we would have used. There were no representations that we made.
SCOWCROFT: I think the answer is no, we did not. We did not. I -- I -- did we think they were gonna do what they did in Tiananmen Square? I don't think so. But any more, then we would have been receptive to the Chinese giving us advice on the Kent State thing. You know, it's just very much their internal affair. Couldn't -- maybe it was wrong, but no, we did not try to tell them how to do it.
KRISTOF: I also think, you know, at the end -- I mean, I -- there was the earlier attempt to use just unarmed soldiers to clear it. But I do think that by the night of June 3 that Deng basically wanted to spill blood. He -- I think he wanted to terrify people, and that in what he saw as this chaos, saw (inaudible) China, this (inaudible) stand. And he wanted to crush it absolutely without any ambiguity. And I -- so I -- you know, even if they had had riot control equipment, by that time I -- I -- I don't know that Deng would used it.
SCOWCROFT: But they had made an internal of the Politburo by that time anyway, and the hardliners had won out before the attack on -- in the square.
QUESTION: There's a fascinating full-page documentary in the Financial Times this morning showing the life stories of a number of the leaders of the square, student leaders of the square, who got out. And in it, it revealed that they were able to get out -- along with about 800 of the senior people in the square -- with the help of U.S. and British intelligence, business people, some party leaders and underworld money, in some extraordinary cinematic ways.
So the question I have for you, General Scowcroft, is were you and the National Security Council part of the initiative of that, innocent bystanders to that? Because it really is an extraordinary success story.
SCOWCROFT: If you will pardon me, I think I won't talk about that.
HAASS: In the back. Yes, sir.
QUESTION: In brief, I was in the countryside. At the time, I was teaching English in the countryside in Hubei Province. And just from that perspective, which is necessary for my question, I -- the students were marching in my town, which was a town of 50,000, by the Yangtze River. I was told not to march with them because it would compromise their movement. One of the interesting details is, it did happen to be the birthplace of Lin Biao, the author of Mao's Little Red Book. And when the students were marching one day, an old woman stood them up and said, "Stop, I want to -- I want to encourage you all, students, because you are reviving the spirit of Lin Biao. Which was the opposite, in fact, of what they were doing. But it gives you an idea of the chaos that China actually was. And that Christmas I was in Najing and was isolated in the dormitory because it was anti- African riots. Because the students didn't like the black students being favored. So it was a chaotic time.
And the theme that you always heard, because a lot of students didn't really know what was going on, was China's not ready for democracy. And -- and that was the basis, in addition to the chaos on which Deng was reacting. I guess my question to you both, since you're not speaking for the administration, is 25 years later these have all been ignored. It is still all there. Is China ready for democracy now? What perspectives would you have on that?
SCOWCROFT: Well, I -- I will venture something. That the Chinese seem to me to be fundamentally fearful of disruption: civil war, chaos and so on. The deep down, they know they've got problems with their political system. My sense is that they're suspicious of democracy because it tends to be chaotic, and they don't know exactly what to do. And they -- they've solved their economic problem in a dramatic and -- and, for the time being, successful way. But they haven't dealt with their political problem.
And I think it's -- it's -- it's honest that they're -- they're fearful of -- of the Chinese structure breaking down, as it has over historic times more than once. And they don't know what to do. That's -- that's just my assessment of it.
KRISTOF: I think China is absolutely ready for democracy. I mean, it would be a messy democracy, one that wouldn't work all that well. They would be manipulated by various elements. But Mongolia can do it, Indonesia can could do it. You know, and people -- Chinese leaders like Li Regwan (ph) very early on were calling for freedom of the press because they saw that this would actually be a way to release some of that steam, and the only way to check corruption. I mean, that -- it's -- you know, corruption is truly threatening the Communist Party, and administrative measures just don't work.
The only way is to provide more outlets. And so, you know, absolutely I think that China is looking at some other countries and what they've done is absolutely ready for, you know, major steps toward freedom and -- and democracy and -- and, you know, Liu Xiaobo should be in a -- some kind of important position rather than in prison.
QUESTION: Nick, do you think the events in the Middle East over the last three years have had an impact on both Chinese thinking and the prospects for -- for political opening in China?
KRISTOF: I don't think they've had a dramatic impact on the thinking of ordinary Chinese so much as on the part of the leaders. I think Chinese leaders saw the protest as something that the U.S. had a role in. I think they thought that the U.S. was conspiring to start some kind of a Jasmine revolution in China. I think there's a lot of paranoia about, you know, the U.S. trying to undermine or overthrow the Party in some ways. And I think that is one reason why Xi Jinping has taken such a tough line on just about anything political (inaudible). I think it's a deep insecurity about risks of unrest.
QUESTION: I meant something different, which is essentially what's happened in the Middle East has given democracy a bad name in China. And they look at what's going on there, and they go, "We want no part of it, thank you very much."
KRISTOF: I don't think that's -- I don't think ordinary Chinese have reacted that way. I -- you know, I think they're -- what they see close to home is the corruption and that's what concentrates the mind (ph).
SCOWCROFT: But the Chinese government is paranoid about interfering in the internal politics of states. That's one of the things you -- you -- they vote in the Security Council all the time on that issue.
QUESTION: The reason they abstained on the vote with Russia and Ukraine, I -- and Crimea was essentially they went against their strategic interests of supporting Russia because they don't want to set the precedent of breakaway within a country. And that takes primacy.
QUESTION: That image of the Tank Man, an unbelievably courageous person, is burned into our brains Can you tell us -- do you know who he was and what became of him?
KRISTOF: We don't know. There are all kinds of theories. We don't know who he was, what happened to him. And, you know, there were -- there were extraordinary acts of courage all over China that night, the next few days, that fall. Some of it had to do with the people who were -- who risked their careers to help others escape on this underground railroad to China. I remember that night of June 3. Some of the troops were coming in on the airport road, the old airport. Now there's a highway. It used to be just a little narrow airport road.
A bus driver, working class bus driver, parked his long bus across the airport road to block the troops coming in. Truckload of troops, the first truckload of troops arrived. Demanded that he move aside his bus. He refused. Officer pulled out his pistol, pointed at him and demanded he -- he move the -- he drive the bus off. And the driver had the keys in his hand. This is night. He threw them into the verge, the grassy verge there, and -- and, you know, I don't -- he was not executed immediately. I don't know what happened to him.
But to do that to block the troops from going to Tiananmen Square, you know, boy, I'm incredibly admiring of -- you know, there -- there were displays of courage that night that I've rarely seen equaled and maybe never surpassed.
HAASS: Yes, sir, in the back?
QUESTION: Hi. My question's very simple. If the Tiananmen Square movement started up today, what do you think would be the response of the Chinese government? I -- I would -- I would think a much more delicate hand, but maybe I'm wrong about that.
SCOWCROFT: Well, I -- I can only guess. I think it would be more sophisticated. I think China has come to terms with itself in a way it had not when Deng first took over. And I -- I think that the real question is, how much experimentation the leadership is prepared to undergo. And I don't know what the answer to that is, but I think it's -- I think it's an active issue in a general sense of how they deal with their own situation with a -- a system where the state-owned industries play a huge political role in the country, and so on.
So I think they're actually internally looking at what they might do. But I don't think they've come to any kind of conclusion
KRISTOF: I would say, in a sense, that it -- I mean, new Tiananmens kind of begin all the time. But what happens is, that first night of the -- of the Hu Yabong protest in Beijing University, they go in and they detain those students and cut if off. And when they see people who are potential threats, organizing commemorations of Tiananmen, for example, they arrest them and they question them. And so I think they're very, very careful to avoid letting it get to the stage when anybody is anywhere near Tiananmen Square.
QUESTION: We -- we tend to think in the U.S., and I think thought even then, that ultimately China must go the way of modern nations: democratize, liberalize. It's been 25 years now, and I wonder how seriously are such discussions had in China. Is that something that we tell ourselves, or is that something that has any sort of resonance there? The China scholar Andy Nathan here has written about what he calls resilient authoritarianism. So are we kidding ourselves about some sort of political evolution there, or are there serious people in China looking ahead a couple of decades and saying here's how Chinese popular government, in some way, will unfold?
HAASS: Nick can answer that, but I hope we come back to that (inaudible) the -- the second session.
KRISTOF: There are absolutely Chinese leaders who are thinking that way. And, I mean, Jiang Zemin even, I think, had something of a vision where you were gonna have village elections leading to township elections, maybe some day to county elections. And these would be, you know, somewhat controlled, manipulated elections, but ways of creating a certain amount of legitimacy of popular feedback, of to some degree addressing corruption. And likewise, there have been leaders who have thought about freedom of the press as a way to deal with some of these social issues.
And I think their vision is, you know, Singapore, where you have alternative points of view and some forms of democracy, but your party stays in power. And -- you know, and who knows where things will evolve. But there is a real debate within the -- among Chinese leaders about these issues.
SCOWCROFT: I think there's one aspect that makes China unique. And that is, it is a different civilization. You know, our own notion is built on the Westphalian nation state system, and that's instinctively how we respond. The Chinese don't have that. It's the central kingdom idea: there's China, then there's everybody else. If you're not Chinese you can't become Chinese. And so there's a different fundamental kind of outlook than converting somebody who's already part of the nation state system. They have a -- they have a -- a longer way to go if they're going to adjust to a democratic system.
HAASS: Felice (ph)?
QUESTION: Generate Scowcroft, after -- when you took that trip to China, the New York Times and other media showed you toasting the Chinese leadership. I wonder if you've had a chance to think about that toast, and if you might have done that differently. And if you think it's necessary for the geostrategic relationship to have maintained that. Second question...
HAASS: OK, let's leave it at one question.
SCOWCROFT: Yes. It wasn't on that trip, though. I went back again in December to explain to the Chinese what had happened in -- in a summit meeting we had with the Soviet Union at Malta. It so happened that there was a reporting team from US News, I think, in China at the time I went back, and reported to the Chinese. And that was not a secret. That was not a secret trip. We -- we were about to start a dinner, and the routine when you start a dinner in China is you have a ritual toast.
And just as we were about to have the toast, the doors opened and in came the reporters. Well, I had a choice. I could either preserve my dignity as a democrat and throw the glass to the floor, or do something. Or I could try to complete the mission I was on to advance U.S.-China relations. And I chose to -- at some risk, to -- from some of our -- my press friends.
I'm not talking about you. But risk of some of the press, I decided to go through with the toast.
QUESTION: Thank you. With that -- with that comment in mind...
HAASS: Introduce yourself.
QUESTION: With that comment in mind, would you like to -- could you comment on the current state of U.S.-China relations? And whether that same instinct should be -- that same drive should be the primary -- primary -- primary goal now?
SCOWCROFT: Yeah, I think we have a unique problem with the Chinese. And it goes back to my comment I made a little while ago. Because deep down inside us we have a different structure we're looking at. And so we talk about the same things, and I think -- but I think sometimes we mean something very different when we talk to each other. And I think it's gonna take a long time for both of us to educate to the other. But as I look around the world -- and this troubled world, and how complicated it is -- I don't see areas where I say yes, the U.S. and Chinese are fated to disagree fundamentally on this issue.
I don't -- I don't think it's that kind of a world. And I think that many of the fundamental things we -- we instinctively have the same ideas, but we're operating in a very different way. And so we've got to treat this relationship as the unique relationship it is while we work our way through the image of different worlds.
HAASS: But, Brent, just -- sorry, to press you for a second, and get Nick to comment on it. Then we have to wind up. Is implicit in that that issues of relations between the United States and China ought to, today, as -- as 25 years ago, ought to take priority over our attempt to reshape China somewhat more in our image?
SCOWCROFT: No, not -- no, not necessarily. But we ought to be aware when we do things what it is likely to mean subliminally to the Chinese. And are we -- are we projecting the same message that we think we are. Is that same message being received by the Chinese in the same way.
KRISTOF: You know, I -- I've said that 25 years ago I don't think we had a lot of leverage. I think now we do have a certain amount of leverage. I think we also may have some capacity to prevent some things that would be tragic for U.S.-China relations. I mean, there is some possibility of something terrible happening among Tibetans, for example. And that could include a lot of Tibetans being -- being killed with -- in front of -- on -- on video, you know, cameras that come out. And I think that we could -- can probably, at the margins, slightly reduce the risk that that would happen.
I think we can increase the likelihood that Liu Xiabo is allowed to leave for medical conditions, for example. And I guess I'm always a little bit skeptical of the idea that China is sort of fundamentally different from so many of the neighbors that have struggled with these issue; whether they be Indonesia or South Korea or Taiwan or Mongolia. And I -- I remember, in Taiwan -- covering Taiwan when it was going through these democratic conniptions. And a -- a KMT leader, Ma Ying- jeou, saying, well, maybe, you know, the Chinese people aren't really -- democracy isn't really appropriate for Chinese people. Well, you know, Ma Ying-jeou is now the democratically-elected president of Taiwan. And I do think that as you create a more of a middle class, international ties, more education there is this demand for political participation. I think that will be true not only of Taiwan, but also -- at some point, but I wouldn't predict when -- of China itself.
HAASS: My reaction to that is when we use the word "democracy," there's not -- there's not only one form of it. One could imagine a -- a Chinese version, or a mix. Where one could have greater political opening, yet still constrain in certain ways to reflect certain Chinese competing interests, or concerns, about national unity and the -- the like.
I have two things to say. One is we're going to reconvene in about 15 minutes with a panel on China's perspective, presided over by Orville Schell, with Louisa Lim and Xiao Qiang. And secondly, I want to thank these two gentlemen. Nick Kristof, as you can see, is one of the thoughtful people of American journalism. And Brent Scowcroft is one of the wise men of American foreign policies. Thank you both.