No longer isolated for Tiananmen crackdown, China pressures others to shun critics like Dalai Lama
Isolated internationally after the June 4 crackdown, China now calls the shots and pressures countries to shun enemies such as the Dalai Lama
Earlier this month, cheering crowds and packed venues greeted the Dalai Lama when he visited Norway, just as they had when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The crowds returned on his 10 other visits. But something was different in May.
Internationally regarded as Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama is considered by Beijing to be a violent separatist. For the first time, the Norwegian government decided that its officials would not meet the 78-year-old.
Politics informed the snub. Norwegian officials said they hoped to restore relations with China that have been strained since imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo received the peace prize in 2010.
"We need to focus on our relationship with China," Norway's Foreign Minister Borge Brende told reporters. "Should the Norwegian government meet the Dalai Lama it could become difficult to normalise our relationship with China."
That China can now influence a European government's decisions shows how far the pendulum has swung in international politics since soldiers gunned down protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Condemned and shunned for years, China has emerged as a global power, able to flex its diplomatic muscle to get what it wants.
After China brutally stopped pro-democracy demonstrations, many Western countries imposed economic sanctions and avoided diplomatic exchanges with the nation. Within a month after the violence on June 4, each of the G7 countries - then the world's most powerful and wealthiest - suspended all high-level exchanges with China. International financial institutions such as the World Bank postponed or deferred consideration of loans to China.
"This was the nadir of China's diplomacy since its founding," said Wu Jianmin, a veteran diplomat and a member of a foreign policy advisory committee to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A consular official to the Chinese embassy in Brussels then, Wu said interactions with European politicians were restricted to low-level officials only.
Richard Solomon, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under president George H.W. Bush, said the US leader struggled to adjust his relationship with China after the crackdown.
"Politically it was a very painful experience for him," Solomon said. "He had a very strong, positive relationship with China." Such a position, however, was no longer popular.
But China's diplomatic isolation was brief. Lower-level trade talks resumed, albeit slowly, in September.
The longer-lasting impact, according to David Zweig, director of the Centre on China's Transnational Relations at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was greater worldwide attention to human rights issues in China.
"All of a sudden China found [the] human rights issue was on everybody's agenda," Zweig said.
Governments and international organisations such as the United Nations increased their scrutiny of China's human rights violations, linking the issue with economic initiatives.
The United States' annual renewal of China's most favoured nation tariff status led international pressure.
Washington imposed additional conditions that required China to improve its human rights record before reviewing the trade status. That status gave China access to American markets at much lower tariff rates. Among the conditions were the release of political prisoners and protection of Tibet's religious and cultural heritage.
The pressure worked in some cases. Leading dissidents Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, both of whom Beijing accused of instigating the 1989 protests, were released largely because of US pressure.
The Tiananmen crackdown also helped galvanise international support for the Dalai Lama's crusade for greater religious and political freedom in Tibet. Some observers asserted that Tiananmen helped the Tibetan Buddhist win the Nobel prize that year, said US-based Tom Grunfeld, a professor of modern Chinese history and Tibetan specialist at the State University of New York's Empire State College in Saratoga Springs.
The Dalai Lama's followers had protested for greater religious freedom and independence long before the Tiananmen movement. Their demonstrations were violently stopped by the Chinese government. Most of the world didn't pay much attention, Zweig said. "It was after Tiananmen that the issue really shot up."
Exiled by foreign governments, with international pressure high, Beijing was forced to be more creative with its foreign policy, Wu said.
To reach out to the international community, China sent its first UN peacekeeping officers in 1992 and acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that year.
China increased its participation in international governmental organisations to more than 50 in 1997 from about 30 in 1986, wrote Jean Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, in 2009. In the 1990s, China joined regional organisations including the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.
During the 1990s and into the new century, Deng Xiaoping's strategy of keeping a low profile in international affairs guided China's foreign policy.
Domestically, China accelerated its economic might. That helped the country became an integral part of world trade. Western money flooded into China, to capitalise on the cheap labour in the previously untapped market.
Most scholars say that the decision by US president Bill Clinton in 1994 to separate human rights issue from China's favoured nation status was the point when China's international punishment began to end.
In 1994, Clinton bowed to pressure from the US business community and ended the annual review of China's human rights record in return for granting the trading status, said Perry Link, professor emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University in New Jersey and currently a professor of comparative literature there. "This pressure that the US Congress could apply to the Chinese government was gone overnight."
Most economic sanctions were lifted by the mid-1990s. China joined the World Trade Organisation in December 2001. Its most-favoured nation status was made permanent about two weeks later.
The only international sanction still in place from 1989 is the European Union's arms embargo, which restricts members from selling weapons to China.
While Western politicians still chastise China's human rights record, Link said China had become too wealthy to care about those accusations.
"And it went further by saying that if you…want to deal with us you need to shut up about human rights," Link said.
"Most Western countries bowed to that, because they want the money and they want the deals with China. So they started to cut back their criticisms."
China has pressed all foreign governments to cut off contact with the Dalai Lama.
The Norway snub was not the first time Beijing has stifled a foreign visit by the Tibetan spiritual leader. Leaders still willing to meet him, such as US President Barack Obama in February, British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2012 and Canada's Stephen Harper in 2010, did so behind closed doors.
As China's international clout grows, many scholars and foreign officials have wondered aloud about what kind of power it may become.
In March, President Xi Jinping gave an attempted answer while visiting France. China, he said, was an awakened lion, referring to a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte two centuries ago.
"But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised," Xi said.
Many scholars remain sceptical. They point to escalating tensions between China and its neighbours around the South and East China seas as a sign of Beijing's increasing assertiveness and aggressions.
"China," Zweig said, "is no longer willing to lie low."