Three decades after the Chinese Communist Party’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy student protests in Tiananmen Square, the memory survives — despite the country’s attempts to stamp it out.

The June 4, 1989, crackdown in Beijing was a stark reminder of the political realities of China’s one-party system, even as the world’s most populous country embarked on reforms and opening up under then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

Since then, the West and Japan have sought to balance human rights concerns with reaping the rewards of economic relations with China.

Now, as allegations of Beijing’s internment of its Uighur Muslim minority into concentration camps takes on new urgency, and as the international community grapples with China’s growing economic dominance, the question has become more relevant than ever.

In dealing with this conundrum and to keep the memory of the massacre alive, Japan’s experience 30 years ago may provide pertinent lessons. Academics and activists, including one former top protest leader, have pointed out the difficulties Tokyo faced — and shortcomings that emerged — in responding to Beijing’s brutality.

Protesters occupying Beijing's Tiananmen Square work on the statue of the 'Goddess of Democracy' on May 30, 1989. The makeshift statue, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, was destroyed, and hundreds of people killed, when Chinese soldiers overran the square in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989. | AP
Protesters occupying Beijing’s Tiananmen Square work on the statue of the ‘Goddess of Democracy’ on May 30, 1989. The makeshift statue, modeled after the Statue of Liberty, was destroyed, and hundreds of people killed, when Chinese soldiers overran the square in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989. | AP

China has never given a full accounting of the events, but hundreds — possibly thousands — are believed to have been killed by People’s Liberation Army troops that retook the square, while a secret diplomatic cable from the British ambassador to China at the time has offered a much higher toll when it was released in 2017: at least 10,000.

Rather, Beijing has embarked on a relentless campaign of censorship, turning the massacre into one of the most politically taboo issues in China.

Tech companies, under the thumb of the party, are now detecting and blocking content related to the crackdown at a hitherto unseen level of accuracy. Searches, even for obscure terms related to the massacre or ones employed as workarounds, consistently turn up only dead ends.

But, saddled with the baggage of its wartime aggression and increasingly intertwined economic ties to China, can — and will — Japan help to preserve the memory of the incident and encourage those speaking out against rights abuses?

Tokyo’s dilemma

As the true scale of the massacre became clearer on June 4, Tokyo looked on with trepidation.

Television had captured scenes of chaos and death in the square, where just days earlier the students had unveiled the “Goddess of Democracy” papier-mache statue, reinvigorating a flailing protest movement that had begun on April 15, after the death of ousted Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang.

It was only about a decade earlier, in 1978, that Japan sealed a peace and friendship treaty with China, a pact that lead to a so-called golden age of Sino-Japanese relations. With the treaty, Tokyo was determined to help Beijing bring about a peaceful and stable development that would draw it closer to Japan and the West via economic ties. And despite some bumps in the road, Japan’s ties improved greatly with the communist-led government.

But the Tiananmen Square protests threatened to bring that momentum to a screeching halt, Tokyo feared, disrupting and possibly permanently affecting the security and economic benefits that came with the two countries’ interactions.

Japan faced a dilemma as it weighed how to balance the rising international pressure to take a tougher stance on China, with the need to avoid isolating it for the sake of regional security and economic incentives. At the time, Japan was the world’s second-largest economy while China, ranked No. 11, was Japan’s largest foreign aid beneficiary and was viewed as a potential top consumer market and source of badly needed natural resources by Tokyo.

Initially, Japan’s reaction was one of caution. But as news reports flooded in, that changed to “grim concern,” K.V. Kesavan, a Japanese studies scholar then with India’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, wrote in a 1990 journal article titled “Japan and the Tiananmen Square incident: Aspects of the bilateral relationship.”

Japan’s first reaction was on June 4, from a Foreign Ministry spokesman who said it was unfortunate that force had been used to quell the political unrest and that Tokyo hoped it would not lead to more bloodshed. This was followed by Masajuro Shiokawa, the new chief Cabinet secretary, issuing a statement the following day saying it was “regrettable” so many had died and that Japan was monitoring the situation and hoping for a speedy end to the political turmoil.

In Beijing, just days earlier, Japanese Ambassador to China Toshijiro Nakajima had snuck out of his embassy compound, curious to see firsthand the protests and speak with the student leaders, he wrote in a 2012 oral history.

Quietly slipping away, Nakajima — who spoke no Chinese — and a translator, entered the square unnoticed, aided, he said, by his Asian appearance.

Upon seeing the crowds, he wrote, he “could feel the momentum of the movement slowing.”

“I felt the same way with the leaders’ responses” to my questions, he wrote. Still, he said, they carried on.

Student leader Wang Dan speaks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 27, 1989, calling for a citywide march. | AP
Student leader Wang Dan speaks in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on May 27, 1989, calling for a citywide march. | AP

But in the background, the vice foreign minister at the time, Ryohei Murata, had reportedly spoken to China’s ambassador to Japan, stressing that Tokyo had no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of China, but that it also wanted Beijing to exercise self-restraint in dealing with the student protests.

This contrasted immensely with many Western countries, including Group of Seven nations such as the United States, Japan’s top ally. While the U.S. imposed its own strict unilateral measures, G7 nations also struck a decidedly tougher tone, categorically condemning China’s military action, imposing a number of financial measures such as halting loans by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and suspending high-level contacts.

The moves made Japan’s own response look ambiguous and soft at best, and self-concerned at worst.

Ultimately, believing that the isolation of China could lead to its destabilization, creating serious consequences for East Asian security and economic livelihood, then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu traveled to Beijing in 1991 on an official visit, becoming the first leader of a major industrialized nation to visit China since Tiananmen, a move that helped ease the country’s gradual return to the international fold.

Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University, however, offered a more direct answer as to why Tokyo was quick to give China a chance after Tiananmen.

“As I remember, the rationale was that the sanctions had been in place for some time and that it was time to move toward normal relations with China. Of course, the real rationale was that Japan needed to get back into the game investing in and trading with China once things had settled down there,” said Nathan, co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers” — a compilation of confidential Chinese official documents relating to the crackdown, which Beijing denounced as fake when published in 2001.

Kristin Vekasi, an expert on Japan-China ties at the University of Maine, said that during the course of her research, the issue of Tiananmen “came up a lot” in discussions with former Japanese diplomats and businesspeople active in China at the time.

“Their perspective was that economic engagement was the only way to continue on a path of liberalization and potential democratization in the future and that sanctions at that point would just cement one-party rule,” she said, pointing out that Japan had actually been opposed to sanctions from the beginning.

Vekasi said there was an element of Tokyo’s economic self-interest, but added that “there was also this broader diplomatic reasoning behind it.”

What’s more, she said, “Japan also has a bit of a different perspective than the rest of the G7 countries because of proximity. China’s going to be right there. Whatever happens, it’s not going anywhere.”

Wartime echoes

Japan has also faced and continues to face more than just an economic powerhouse on its doorstep as complicating factors in its relationship with China. It also faces the prospect of having to confront its own wartime actions and questions over its ability to effectively call out China on rights issues such as Tiananmen.

Japan’s wartime aggression and occupation of Asia saw it commit a number of atrocities in China that continue to roil ties between the two Asian giants, including claims of forced labor, mass killings such as the 1937-1938 Nanking Massacre, and alleged germ warfare and other biological experiments mainly on prisoners in China before and during World War II.

“I think that Japan has felt constrained from speaking out forcefully on human rights issues not only in China but in Asia and globally, because of the historical issues,” Nathan said.

This constraint was on display when Japan reluctantly halted official development aid (ODA) to China in 1989-1990 — a move that saw the government suspend a five-year, $5.4 billion package of yen loans in accordance with decisions taken by European and North American countries in June 1989 — in the immediate wake of Tiananmen.

Some observers have said that Japan’s ODA to China, which Tokyo halted last year after four decades, had amounted to de facto war reparations, which were officially waived with the signing of the 1972 Japan-China Joint Communique that established bilateral ties between the two countries.

Vekasi said that while ODA had been talked about in Japanese government and business circles as a kind of tacit payment of reparations, “it wasn’t explicit.”

Nevertheless, she acknowledged that while many countries have dark histories, “within the Japan-China relationship, the history of problems are extremely salient — and Chinese people are very well informed about many of the nastier parts” of their shared history.

Regarding Tiananmen, this was also likely a factor that prevented a more forceful response from Tokyo.

“It is very difficult for a Japanese person or a Japanese official in the Chinese context to criticize them that way,” Vekasi said. “That, of course, doesn’t abrogate that responsibility to speak for human rights, but it’s a pretty politically impossible situation for the Japanese to take any sort of moral stance in China, as the Chinese will say, ‘Well, how can you do this when you’ve not properly apologized or shown remorse for what you did here?’ ”

Ultimately, the chaos of Tiananmen prompted Japan’s Foreign Ministry to re-evaluate how it doles out ODA, adopting a charter on June 30, 1992, that urged Tokyo to “protect basic human rights and freedoms” when doing so.

Global naivete

Asked about Japan’s approach to China in the wake of the massacre, onetime most-wanted fugitive and Tiananmen protest leader Wang Dan, now 50, told The Japan Times that 30 years on, it still hasn’t been enough.

“Of course I’m not satisfied with the response of the Japanese government,” said Wang, who now lives in exile in Washington, where he runs the China Dialogue think tank. “Japan was the first country to withdraw sanctions. (For a variety of reasons) Japan has the biggest responsibility for peace in East Asia. I can’t agree with the Japanese government decision at that time.”

Veteran Chinese dissident Wang Dan speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday. | AP
Veteran Chinese dissident Wang Dan speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday. | AP

But Wang, a former Beijing University student who was imprisoned twice by Chinese authorities for his role in the Tiananmen protests and was in 1998 exiled to the United States — where he obtained a doctorate in history from Harvard University and later taught in Taiwan from 2009-2017 — said it wasn’t only the Japanese response that left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“The whole world … was naive at that time,” he said. “After only two years, they called off the sanctions. Why? Because Western countries and the Japan government still had hope for CCP (Chinese Communist Party).

“They believed that cooperation or engagement with China, maybe China will have rapid economic growth, then they will have a middle class, then there is democracy.

“My question is, is it time for us now, democratic countries, to re-recognize the true face of the CCP and try to learn some lessons from the Tiananmen massacre?”

Linking trade with rights

In a news conference last week, Wang urged Japan and Western nations to restore the link between human rights and trade with China. Those links had effectively been severed since the 1990s, when the United States made China’s most favored nation trading status conditional on an annual review of issues including rights.

“China becomes a threat for the free world, and in my opinion, I think it is time to re-link trade and human rights issues. That might be the only way to deal with this problem,” Wang said in a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo.

“I know a lot of Western countries don’t want to ruin their relationship with China, and don’t want to see any regime change in China, but I have to say, if there’s no regime change, nothing can be resolved,” he told reporters, grouping Japan in with the West.

Wang said free trade should be conditioned on Beijing’s respect for freedoms, including labor rights and a free and open internet.

“You don’t have to pass a bill, you can just use this way to link trade and human rights,” he said.

But some experts have thrown cold water on the suggestion, saying that imposing punitive measures or threats of punitive measures would be unrealistic.

“It’s intuitively a really powerful idea, but in practice I’m concerned about how it would work,” said Vekasi said, adding that transaction costs would surge and violations would be rampant.

“Practically it’s very difficult to think about, so it might not be effective.” she said. “But the broader concern I have about it … often people who suffer from trade sanctions or other sanctions are not the actors who are being targeted but rather … ordinary people.”

Speaking out forcefully

Japan has long quietly employed measures to help develop civil society and promote democracy in China, particularly through nonprofit organizations like the Silver Volunteers program, which sends retired experts to developing countries to aid them in certain sectors, and via targeted loans and exchanges of students, among other actions, according to June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor who studies Sino-Japanese relations.

But Dreyer said that when it comes to actively working to keep the memory of Tiananmen alive, Tokyo must first consider the pros and cons of doing so.

“Should the government of Japan consider it useful, perhaps as a lever against incessant Chinese bullying against Japan … it could quietly encourage anti-Chinese-government Chinese and Taiwanese in Japan to hold commemorative services,” she said.

Giant balloons in the shape of a Chinese military tank and Tank Man are placed at Liberty Square, ahead of the June 4 anniversary of a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in Taipei on May 21. | REUTERS
Giant balloons in the shape of a Chinese military tank and Tank Man are placed at Liberty Square, ahead of the June 4 anniversary of a military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in Taipei on May 21. | REUTERS

Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher with Human Rights Watch, also said there was space for Tokyo to maneuver on the issue of Tiananmen and human rights.

“The Japanese government should speak more forcefully about human rights violations in China and provide a safe space where civil society groups and activists — both from Japan and China — can communicate and learn from each other,” she said.

It could also do more to provide “a safe home” for human rights activists “who are terribly persecuted in China,” she added, urging reforms to Japan’s asylum and refugee determination system, which she said “remains strongly oriented against granting refugee status.”

Japan granted refugee status to 42 people last year out of 10,493 applicants. This included just four Chinese out of 308 total applicants. Two other Chinese were also granted residence on “humanitarian grounds.”

One dramatic example of Japan’s stance on refugees and asylum-seekers from China came in December 1989, when a Chinese dissident hijacked and threatened to blow up a Chinese jetliner bound for New York with 223 people aboard, forcing it to land in the city of Fukuoka. In an attempt at averting a potential diplomatic confrontation with China, the Japanese government immediately said it would extradite the suspect, Zhang Zhenhai, who said he had taken part in the Tiananmen protests and had fled to escape torture and possible execution.

After a 133-day legal battle, he was eventually sent back to China in April the following year after a high court ruling, with the Japanese government saying it would not tolerate hijacking for any reason — despite pleas to halt his extradition by rights group Amnesty International and the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus. He was later sentenced to eight years in prison in China.

In the ensuing years, Japan continued to grapple with the Chinese asylum and refugee issue. In 1991, Asia Watch, a rights monitoring letter that was under the umbrella of activist nongovernmental organization later known as Human Rights Watch, severely criticized Tokyo over its handling of Chinese students in the country.

It said that Japan had “forcibly repatriated” some who were dissidents, impeded their access to lawyers and showed hostility to their political concerns despite a promise by Tokyo at a 1989 G7 summit in Paris that it would offer refuge to dissidents who feared persecution if returned to China.

Ultimately, while Japan denied political asylum and any other form of blanket protection to Chinese dissidents fearing persecution if returned, it remained flexible in dealing with visa requests from Chinese students, with immigration officials granting a number of students special “designated activities” visas that allowed for legal residency in the country for renewable six-month periods.

According to the group, there were an estimated 15,000 Chinese students in Japan in 1990, with 48,000 more in language schools — the largest number in any country outside of China at the time.

‘A new history’

As for Wang Dan, the veteran dissident believes despite the history behind Sino-Japanese ties, Tokyo can still make a noticeable difference in preserving the memory of Tiananmen and fighting for rights in China.

“Japan can do a lot of things,” he said. “We all know in the past there was some conflict between Japan and China. We cannot change that, as history has already happened. We have to make a new history. I believe this new history must be based on a foundation of democracy.”

Portraits of people who were killed in the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing are displayed in March during a secret meeting at an undisclosed location in China. | AFP-JIJI
Portraits of people who were killed in the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing are displayed in March during a secret meeting at an undisclosed location in China. | AFP-JIJI

Japan, he added, “has a responsibility” to promote democracy in China, but noted that this might not be “realistic” for Tokyo.

Still, he pointed to the promotion of activities similar to that of the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit organization funded and overseen by Congress and founded with the stated goal of promoting democracy abroad, which he said has been “very helpful for civil society’s growth.”

“Why doesn’t the Japan government do this?” Wang asked. “Even Taiwan has this kind of foundation to support (the) development of civil society. Japan can do this. I don’t understand why they do not want to do this.”

One possible arena where Japan could do this? More vociferously addressing China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in its western Xinjiang region, where more than 1 million are believed to be held in internment camps, said Columbia University’s Nathan.

“Japan and other countries have been slowly waking up to the magnitude of this very large human rights disaster,” he said. “It is a matter both of general citizenship rights and of religious freedom — both very important matters of principle for liberal democracies like Japan. Therefore I hope the Japanese government and society will voice strong condemnation of what China is doing.”

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