A prominent former U.S. Ambassador to China said Tuesday that there was no reason for the Chinese government to crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping decided to do so simply to make a statement.
In a call with reporters on Tuesday, former Ambassador Winston Lord said that there was no need to crackdown militarily on protesters by the beginning of June, 1989 because protests had begun to peter out by the end of May.
“There was no need to crackdown” by the beginning of June, Lord said. “Deng Xiaoping clearly wanted to make a statement. He didn’t need to use force.”
In support of his position, Lord noted that by the end of May of that year, CBS had already begun to recall its reporters—including the Ambassador’s wife—in the belief that the protests were largely over, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of people showing up each day.
Lord also said that Deng “didn’t dare” use People Liberation Army troops that were stationed near Beijing to crackdown on protesters, as those troops would’ve known too much about the intent and purpose of the protesters. Instead, the former U.S. ambassador said that Deng had called on ignorant “peasant troops” from outside the capital city, and told those troops that the protesters were criminals who needed to be removed.
There are few if any American diplomats with more experience in dealing with China than Ambassador Lord. As a member of the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger during the Richard Nixon administration, Lord accompanied Kissinger on his initial secret trip to open up ties with China in 1971. He was also part of the delegation that accompanied Nixon on his historical trip the following year, and again traveled to China with then-President Gerald Ford in 1975.
Between 1973 and 1977, Lord was the State Department’s Director of Policy Planning and top policy adviser on China. Later, during the Reagan administration, he served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1985 through 1989, leaving that post just before the military crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square. From 1993 to 1997, Lord again returned to government to serve as U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
Outside of government, he served as president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Throughout the media call, which was organized by Foreign Affairs magazine, Lord was harshly critical of China’s human rights policies. While acknowledging the enormous achievements China has made in the economic realm, the ambassador rejected the argument that this success had to come at the expense of political reform. Instead, he argued that China could’ve pulled off what it has economically without the level of repression that it used.
Furthermore, Lord argued that China will not be able to pull off its current economic rebalancing without instituting some degree of political liberalization. On this front, however, Ambassador Lord is not overly optimistic. While some human rights areas have improved since Tiananmen, he maintained that other areas have gotten worse. For example, in contemporary China, the CCP did “not only lock up the Nobel Prize winner, but [locked] up his sick wife,” Lord pointed out.
Lord admitted that he had been “naïve” in expecting greater political liberalization in China following the Tiananmen crackdown, albeit he pointed out that he was hardly alone in holding that position. He also criticized the George H.W. Bush administration’s response to the Tiananmen crackdown, stating that National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft’s visit to China was “premature.”
In the end, however, Lord said that the U.S. should not allow human rights to sabotage the larger Sino-American relationship. “Human rights, as important as it is, cannot dominate our agenda.”