The Lingering Legacy of Tiananmen

James Sasser, President Bill Clinton's ambassador to China, tells a story about a 1997 visit to Beijing by a delegation from the U.S. Congress. Suspicions still simmered from the previous year's tensions in the Taiwan Strait. A senior Chinese official briefed the American visitors on China's domestic and international challenges and then invited questions. "I just want to know," one member of Congress asked, "if you've accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior." His Chinese host, Sasser recalls, looked stunned.

Foreign policy professionals will no doubt sympathize with the Chinese diplomat and write off the incident as yet another bizarre congressional foray into matters better left to the experts. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss this incident so lightly. To the contrary, this episode (one not recounted in Suettinger's new book) reveals much about the complicated manner in which the United States goes about managing relations with the world's most populous nation.

Beyond Tiananmen details the troubled relationship between the United States and China during the dozen years encompassed by the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. These were times of turmoil and tragedy, of dangerous confrontations and bitter recriminations. But paradoxically, it was also a period when both sides came to the conclusion that their bilateral ties were too central to their fundamental interests to permit the relationship to collapse altogether.

Although Beijing welcomed the 1988 election of Bush, whom many Chinese regarded as an old friend, the bloodshed of the Tiananmen "massacre"-as most Americans interpreted the events of June 4, 1989-smashed hopes for cordial ties within months of Bush's assumption of office. Literally overnight, Suettinger writes, the relationship between the two countries went from "amity and strategic cooperation to hostility, distrust, and misunderstanding." In the 12 succeeding years, Suettinger argues, bilateral relations never evolved "beyond Tiananmen," and the legacy of that calamitous affair continues to shape Sino-American relations to this day.

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