Diplomatic Documents Show Japan’s Post-Tiananmen Square Approach Wrong

The expectation that China would become a free and open country if economic cooperation continued to be provided was ultimately wrong. The government needs to learn lessons from its diplomatic history with China.

Thirty years after the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989, the Foreign Ministry has declassified diplomatic documents from that time.

The documents have revealed that, in response to Beijing’s violent crackdown on students and other pro-democracy protesters that caused many casualties, the Japanese government took a conciliatory approach to the Chinese Communist Party-led government from the beginning.

A document dated the day of the incident stated that it was “unacceptable,” but described it as “a domestic issue in China.”

Western countries called for imposing sanctions against China, but another document pointed out that, from a long-term perspective, it would serve the interests of Japan and the rest of the world if efforts were made to make China “moderate and stable” by continuing economic cooperation.

At that time, China’s nominal gross domestic product was less than one-sixth of Japan’s. Japan accounted for about three-quarters of bilateral assistance to China. Out of consideration for the historical background of the Sino-Japanese War, Japan apparently concluded that halting all economic cooperation was not realistic.

However, as Japan did not take a stern attitude, China may have interpreted this as, in effect, tolerating its violent crackdown.

According to the diplomatic documents, following the incident, Deng Xiaoping, China’s most powerful figure at that time, said that if asked which rights were more important, human rights or national rights, national rights concerning independence, sovereignty and dignity overwhelm everything.

Afterward, the Chinese government strengthened its surveillance and control of information on movements seeking democratization and political freedom, and its reform and opening-up policy then changed.

Japan has extended large amounts of yen loans to China. It can be said that separately from providing aid to China, Japan should have conveyed its position that universal values such as human rights and democracy cannot be compromised and should have made more efforts to encourage Beijing to improve its situation.

China has developed to the point where it has surpassed Japan economically, but its strong-arm stance has become even more evident. In Hong Kong, China has tightened its grip on the pro-democracy movement and repeatedly taken coercive action in the East and South China seas.

It cannot but be said that the Japanese government missed the mark with its expectation that China would eventually take a more cooperative stance with the international community if its people’s lives became more affluent.

The United States had also adopted a policy of aiming to achieve democratization in China through economic engagement. However, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump shifted to a hard-line stance, calling Washington’s engagement policy with China a failure.

Japan must persistently urge China to abide by international norms.