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Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000

Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000

By Robert L. Suettinger

Brookings Institution Press, 2003, 556 pp.

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.

This book builds on earlier accounts of this complex bilateral relationship by, among others, James Mann, Patrick Tyler, and David Lampton. More so than journalists such as Mann and Tyler, who concentrate on the U.S. side of the relationship, Suettinger devotes considerable effort to stripping away the multiple layers of secrecy obscuring Beijing's decision-making process. Suettinger's work is more akin to Same Bed, Different Dreams, Lampton's 2001 study of U.S.-China ties; both focus on the years between 1989 and 2000, and both give extensive treatment to the Chinese as well as the American side.

Unlike Lampton, however, Suettinger writes from the perspective of an insider, who did not merely witness many of the events he recounts but had a hand in shaping them. For 10 of the 12 years covered in this book, Suettinger served on either the National Intelligence Council or the National Security Council and was responsible for relations with China. Although accounts written by former officials always raise questions of balance and personal agendas, Suettinger gives his reader enough detail about the messy process of making and managing policy to set this book apart from its competitors.


Suettinger's book is also noteworthy in its emphasis on the impact of domestic politics on the policymaking process in both China and the United States. Grand strategy or careful calculations of national interest, Suettinger insists, rarely explained the policies either nation pursued toward the other. Thus, the pervasive Chinese assumption that U.S. policy toward Beijing is directly driven by strategic considerations is "grossly inaccurate," whereas the casual American assumption that domestic politics are unimportant in a one-party state leads to an equally skewed U.S. reading of Chinese policymaking.

After Tiananmen, Suettinger argues, "the bilateral relationship lost its insulation from domestic politics." This is not a trivial insight. Lacking a sophisticated understanding of the forces influencing the policy process of the other, neither country has been very successful at anticipating the other's policies or foreseeing likely responses to its own initiatives. Chinese bellicosity toward Taiwan has only strengthened the hand of those in the United States most eager to expand Washington's defense commitment to Taipei. American lectures on religious freedom have made a Chinese leadership already obsessed with social stability that much more intransigent in dealing with the Falun Gong. The result, Suettinger concludes, has been a bilateral relationship driven by events and susceptible to wild swings of emotion, "without unifying principles or concord . . . the sum of its disagreements and the product of mistakes and misperceptions."

Moreover, domestic political considerations have also prevented both sides from taking actions that might have helped stabilize the relationship. When the Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi sought refuge at the U.S. embassy in June 1989, and it became apparent that the Americans were not prepared to turn him over to Chinese authorities, Beijing might have cut its losses by granting Fang safe passage out of the country. Instead, a besieged Communist Party leadership feared compromising its hard-line policies toward any challenge to the party's monopoly on power, and Fang remained for many months under voluntary house arrest under the protection of the U.S. ambassador-a vivid symbol for Americans of Chinese despotism and a major irritant in U.S.- China relations. Similarly, the fear of appearing "soft" on China in the eyes of his domestic critics kept Clinton from accepting a World Trade Organization agreement with Beijing in April 1999, only to approve a virtually identical deal at the end of the year.

That the Tiananmen massacre occurred just at the moment when the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe was collapsing and old Cold War fears were evaporating must seem, in Chinese eyes, a particularly cruel joke. For the United States, China was no longer a necessary strategic partner against the Soviet Union. China's one-party authoritarianism was no longer excusable, and its repression of domestic foes no longer had to be overlooked.

Strategic "realists" who had dominated Washington policy circles for 40 years suddenly found they had to compete for influence with groups and issues new to the China-policy arena. Beijing's coercive population policies assumed an unfamiliar significance for the bilateral relationship. So, too, did its use of prison labor to produce goods for export and its toleration of intellectual-property piracy. Tibet proved an impediment to collaboration out of all proportion to the small size of America's Buddhist community. China's alleged harvesting of human organs became grist for impassioned speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives. Religious conservatives, labor unions, environmental organizations, Hollywood actors, and immigrant groups all sought to influence America's China policy to an extent unimaginable a decade earlier. The introduction of these disparate voices greatly complicated Washington's decision-making process and brought far more volatility and acrimony to U.S.-China ties.

Ironically, the same events that sparked American calls for greater pluralism in China-namely, the disintegration of Soviet power in Eastern Europe-convinced Beijing's Communist Party elders that they could not afford to release their iron grip or tolerate even modest levels of dissent. Nor could they respond to White House pleas to consider American public opinion as they fashioned their domestic policies. The Chinese leadership, after all, had its own internal political problems and preoccupations.


Behind much of the Washington debate on China over the past decade lay two related and fundamental questions. How much influence or leverage to shape the behavior of other countries does the United States possess? And how can it most effectively promote human rights, nonproliferation, or any other issue on its agenda? To put it more crudely, does Washington have the power to compel China to behave in ways that are more acceptable?

Many members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, have little doubt on this score. The typical legislator, cognizant of America's vast power and freed from the day-to-day responsibilities of managing relations with a recalcitrant foreign government, is far less apt than executive branch officials to acknowledge limits on Washington's ability to push, prod, persuade, or pressure other countries to do the United States' bidding. And when such tactics proved insufficient to elicit compliance in China's case, Congress found ready explanations for this failure in executive branch incompetence, inattention, naiveté, or, in extreme cases, treason. The (Bush or Clinton) administration did not try hard enough, the critics complained. It did not care enough; it failed to use all the weapons at its disposal. "We have real clout," one senior legislator has implored, expressing a view shared by many of his colleagues throughout the 1990s. "Let's use it on behalf of the millions of suffering people in the People's Republic of China."

Unsurprisingly, given his years in the executive branch, Suettinger's sympathies in these pages lie more with the White House and the State Department than with the lawmakers down the length of Pennsylvania Avenue. He describes Congress with some accuracy as the "guardian of a values-based foreign policy." But he is less prepared to concede that on occasion Congress' approach to China produced results. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's mandate to the chair of the Asia subcommittee to monitor Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese control and to submit regular reports to Congress may have helped convince many in Hong Kong that the United States was not going to abandon them after the 1997 turnover.

Conceivably-although at present it cannot be proved-this congressional scrutiny also gave clout to those in Beijing and Hong Kong who counseled the latter's new Chinese rulers against a sharp break with pretransition practices.

This is not to say that the executive branch itself spoke with one voice, however, or functioned as a unitary actor. To the contrary, the half-hidden competition between the State Department and the National Security Council for control of China policy becomes a recurring theme in Suettinger's treatment. Bush's secretary of state, James Baker, was largely uninterested in China, which he saw as a political liability and on which he was only too pleased to have Brent Scowcroft, the president's national security adviser, take the lead. After Clinton entered the White House in 1993, control of China policy reverted to the State Department, which, in keeping with the president's campaign promises, gave the promotion of human rights pride of place among its priorities for China. But disappointment with the meager results of this approach (a failure as much Clinton's as State's) led to a reassertion of nsc authority, and by Clinton's second term, China policy was once more run out of the White House.


Suettinger's name surfaced briefly during investigations in 1997-98 into influence peddling and illegal campaign contributions, as the nsc aide who warned that contributor Johnny Chung was a "hustler" whose agenda did not necessarily match that of the Clinton administration. Predictably, but probably accurately, Suettinger emphatically denies that Chung or any of the other unsavory figures caught up in the campaign finance scandal had any voice in the policy process. Those convinced of Clinton's knavery, however, are unlikely to accept this judgment as definitive.

Even leaving aside the Clinton-haters, not everyone will like this book. Suettinger contends that the strategic distrust characteristic of Sino-American relations today is based largely on misperceptions: many Chinese believe the United States has an insatiable lust for world domination, and many Americans see China as an updated version of a 1930s Germany or Japan. These may well be misperceptions for Suettinger, but policymaking circles in both Washington and Beijing are replete with people who are absolutely convinced of the accuracy of these images.

Nor will this account be applauded by those political theorists whose grand axioms of international behavior take a backseat to Suettinger's emphasis on the profoundly political nature of the policymaking process. After all, if decisions in the foreign policy arena turn out to be the outcome of complex and often hidden internal political processes rather than of long-term strategic trends or pristine calculations by elites, then international-affairs theoreticians will find less of a market for either their predictive or their explanatory models.

Still others will take issue with Suettinger's fundamental assessment that the extent of the American reaction to the 1989 Tiananmen slaughter was "remarkable" in its intensity and duration. Many Americans argued then, and still maintain today, that the U.S. response to the tragedy was excessively timid and failed to reflect the horror of the precipitating event. Suettinger, who in no way glosses over the magnitude of the Tiananmen brutality, nonetheless falls into the "engagement" camp and aligns himself with those who maintain that China would be more likely to move in directions Americans favor if it is treated with public respect rather than harangued. Those who disagree with this basic premise will find Beyond Tiananmen fatally flawed.

Moreover, contemporary history inevitably raises questions of sources for which no fully satisfying answer exists. Suettinger's endnotes run to 90 pages but inevitably rely heavily on The New York Times and The Washington Post, especially for the American side of the story. He has supplemented journalistic accounts by interviewing a number of former U.S. officials from the executive branch-albeit not from the U.S. Congress, and not from the Chinese side.

Indeed, his treatment of the Chinese decision-making process is simultaneously a strength and a weakness of the book. Non-Chinese readers will learn much from Suettinger's judicious account of the extent to which Beijing's policy toward the United States is driven by personal and bureaucratic jockeying for power, ideological cleavages within the party's senior leadership, competing visions of China's future, the civilians' need to maintain political alliances with the People's Liberation Army, feelings of national pride and a sense of victimization, ineffectual or undeveloped legal mechanisms and traditions, a pervasive fear of disorder in the streets, and much more. On the other hand, precisely because he believes that neither Chinese journalists nor scholars have adequately delved into China's decision-making process, Suettinger's explanation of it rests on far shakier sources, and his judgments about behind-the-scenes decision-making in Beijing are therefore more speculative, a problem he readily acknowledges.

Perhaps surprisingly, this long-time member of the U.S. intelligence community has chosen not to seek the release of classified information, on the grounds that intelligence is generally overrated in discussions of the policy process. Indeed, his relatively few references to the intelligence community emphasize its failures, such as the unhappy Yin He episode (when American assertions that the Chinese vessel was transporting contraband chemicals proved embarrassingly inaccurate), or the equally unsatisfactory Wen Ho Lee espionage case, or occasions when partisans manipulated ostensibly policy-neutral intelligence assessments in order to promote their policy preferences.

What about the future of the Sino-American relationship? Despite the cooperative tone to their interactions since September 11, 2001, and the common interest in waging war against terrorism that Washington and Beijing appear to have discovered, Suettinger remains cautious, almost pessimistic. He notes the persistence of anger, mistrust, and antipathy toward the other found among influential groups in each country. The terrorist attacks on the United States have not led to any genuine political or strategic meeting of the minds, he concludes. Moreover, the sources of tension in the U.S.-China relationship-arms proliferation, trade, military competition, human rights, and, above all, Taiwan-persist. If Suettinger is correct in this somewhat glum assessment, and I expect he is, then the relationship will require far more skillful management, from both sides, than it has heretofore enjoyed. Those entrusted with this task, both Chinese and American, would do well to study these pages.

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  • Robert M. Hathaway is Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
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