• Asia-Pacific

Japan Differed from U.S. and Europe’s Hard-Line Policies after Tiananmen Incident


The diplomatic documents that the Foreign Ministry made public on Wednesday recorded in detail the Japanese government’s thinking on the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing in June 1989, and how it responded.

Following the Tiananmen Square incident, the Japanese government responded by taking such actions as freezing new yen loans to Beijing, setting itself apart from European countries and the United States, which took punitive measures against China. It was gathered from the diplomatic documents that the Japanese government tried to resume full-fledged economic cooperation with Beijing at an early stage while staving off criticism from those other countries.

“We should respond in such a way as to contain any impact from the recent development so it is as small as possible in real terms.”

“We are to adopt a policy of taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude until the summit meeting … and of restoring normal relations gradually.”

“Pay attention to not using such expressions as ‘freeze,’ ‘suspend’ and ‘drastic review,’ in light of our cautious response concerning new cases [of economic cooperation].”

An explanatory document written for the then prime minister, dated June 22 and titled “Our country’s policy toward China in the future,” revealed the Japanese government’s position of trying to resume economic cooperation with China at an early stage.

The document also pointed out that Japan ought to “coordinate its standpoints on two conflicting aspects: the values our country has, namely democracy and human rights, and the support of China’s reform and open-door policy, as viewed from a wide long-term perspective.”

A document titled “About Japan’s economic policy toward China in the future” and dated June 21 summarized Japan’s economic cooperation as having assisted “China’s modernization and opening-up,” and emphasized that “as long as China’s modernization and opening-up are maintained in general, there is no reason to change this stance [of assistance].” It then set out Japan’s policy of “putting off for the time being” any new cases of economic cooperation, but of continuing such cooperation that was already underway while averting criticism from countries in Europe and North America.

At a foreign ministerial meeting of the Group of Seven summit talks at the Arche de la Defense in Paris, which started on July 14, then Foreign Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka said, “As long as the country [China] shows that its commitment to the ‘reform and open-door’ policy remains unchanged, it is necessary to send it a message saying that we are prepared to resume our assistance and cooperation over such a policy.”

There was criticism of Japan’s position, including from the United States, which said that Japan “prioritizes its economic interests.”

The U.S. government warned Japan on June 15, with a deputy assistant secretary of state telling a senior Foreign Ministry official that Japan’s approving its ongoing cases of economic cooperation with China one after another will provoke Washington. On July 8, an assistant to the U.S. president told Japan that it is seen by the U.S. Congress as a country that prioritizes pursuing its economic interests over considering a humanitarian issue, and asked Tokyo to put off as much as possible its approval of the cases. But the Japanese side responded by saying, “We cannot help but quietly resume those ongoing cases of economic cooperation, at least.”

Concerned about criticism from abroad, including from the United States, the Japanese government repeatedly set forth its policy that “the Japanese government and companies should refrain, as much as possible, from having any of their actions become prominent assuch acts may be perceived as a looter after a fire.”

In a policy plan dated Aug. 7, the government issued an instruction that the coming and going of officials engaged in economic cooperation should be conducted “as inconspicuously and quietly as possible.”

The Chinese side, too, called on Japan to resume economic cooperation. On Nov. 12, then Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng, speaking about part of the frozen yen loans to China, suggested to a delegation of the Japan-China Economic Association visiting China: “How about starting little by little, without making it public? Because European countries and the United States would react without fail if it was made public.”

Shin Kawashima, professor at the University of Tokyo and scholar on the history of international relations in East Asia, said the just-unveiled documents “are first-rate documents, with which we can comprehend the views of the Foreign Ministry back then.”

■ Eye on power struggle

The Japanese government was also paying close attention to the power struggle within the Chinese Communist Party in connection with the Tiananmen Square incident.

An official telegram that the Foreign Ministry’s China division sent to the Japanese Embassy in Beijing on May 22 pointed out the possibility of a leadership struggle within the Chinese administration, saying, “The possibility cannot be ruled out that the decision-making mechanism within the Chinese leadership is not functioning properly.” As a reason for this, the division wrote that Beijing had not made any moves to remove the protesters from the square even two days after martial law had been declared in the city.

During the Tiananmen Square incident, the conflict became apparent within the CCP leadership: between conservatives including top leader and Chairman of the Central Military Commission Deng Xiaoping and Prime Minister Li; and General Secretary of the CCP Zhao Ziyang, who wanted reconciliation with students and other protesters. Consequently, Zhao fell from power.

As Zhao’s moves had not been officially released, the ministry presumed in the telegram that “his restrained responses have bolstered student protests, prompting the party to hold him responsible.” While saying that it would be highly likely Li would maintain the administration with the support of party elders including Deng, the telegram took the view that “the management of the country would not be easy, with his position likely to become unstable.”

As to Deng, who took the lead in dealing with the incident, the tone of the document is generally harsh. Saying that he would be forced to bear the brunt of public opposition, the document said that “there is even a possibility of his being driven into a situation whereby he will have no choice but to retire earlier than expected.”

Eventually, on June 24, the CCP chose Party Committee Secretary of Shanghai and member of the politburo Jiang Zemin as the new general secretary of the party, replacing Zhao. Deng resigned as chairman of the central military commission of the CCP in November, a post to be succeeded by Jiang.