The lingering legacy of Tiananmen Square
May 28, 1999
From Hong Kong Bureau Chief Mike Chinoy
BEIJING (CNN) -- It has been 10 years, but the images of defiance and repression are so powerful that even now the crackdown in Tiananmen Square continues to shape U.S. perceptions of China.
The events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 were witnessed by a huge TV audience and produced a fundamental change in the way China was regarded in the United States.
A country once viewed as a pragmatic, reforming partner became, almost overnight, a brutal international pariah.
"We are driven by images," says James Lilley, the former U.S. ambassador to China, "and the Tiananmen images are the most powerful images we've had for years."
So powerful, in fact, that since 1989, China has been a target of constant criticism in the United States, and China policy a source of bitter debate across the American political spectrum.
But after recognizing the geopolitical need to deal with Beijing, his administration still worries about the political cost in the United States.
And with some reason.
The religious right has denounced China's alleged persecution of Chinese Christians. The anti-abortion lobby opposes China's family planning policy. Human rights activists are angry about the way Beijing treats dissidents.
Trade protectionists and labor unions worry about the U.S. trade deficit, and conservative strategists look for a post-Cold War enemy to replace the Soviet Union.
A China tainted by Tiananmen Square has become, indeed, a whipping boy for advancing domestic political agendas in the United States.
"China represents the best partisan foreign policy issue in the U.S. political system today," says Professor Robert Ross of the Fairbank Center at Harvard University. "So a senator, a congressman, a politician can appear to be standing up for American interests and fighting communism by taking on China."
Almost lost in all this is the fact that China has changed profoundly since 1989.
The gleaming department stores, the Internet coffee shops, the modern stock exchanges, even experiments with village level elections -- all suggest a China more open, less oppressive, than many Americans would acknowledge.
"If the American public can understand the greater complexity and plurality of China as a result of the coverage of the president's visit, that will be the most important contribution to advancing Sino-American relations," says Professor David Shambaugh of George Washington University.
Yet the shadow of Tiananmen is unlikely to disappear. The images are too powerful, China's human rights record is too spotty, and the Beijing government is too nervous to revise its official stand on what happened.
So even with the passage of time and all that has changed, the scars of 1989 remain.
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