A significant development in the US-China relations has not received the attention it deserves. After having kept quiet on the issue of the human rights of the Tibetans during her visit to China in February, 2009, which was analysed and interpreted by many in a manner unfavourable to the Barack Obama Administration,
Mrs Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has come out strongly in articulating the US position on the Tiananmen Square massacre by the Chinese security forces 20 years ago and on the way the Chinese authorities have sought to suppress the truth from coming out.
In a statement issued at Washington DC on June 3, 2009, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the massacre, Hillary Clinton said:
On this the 20th anniversary of the violent suppression of demonstrations in Tiananmen Square by Chinese authorities, we should remember the tragic loss of hundreds of innocent lives and reflect upon the meaning of the events that preceded that day.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets for weeks, in Beijing and around the country, first to honor the late reformist leader Hu Yaobang and then to demand basic rights denied to them.
A China that has made enormous progress economically, and that is emerging to take its rightful place in global leadership, should examine openly the darker events of its past and provide a public accounting of those killed, detained or missing, both to learn and to heal.
This anniversary provides an opportunity for Chinese authorities to release from prison all those still serving sentences in connection with the events surrounding June 4, 1989. We urge China to cease the harassment of participants in the demonstrations and begin dialogue with the family members of victims, including the Tiananmen Mothers. China can honor the memory of that day by moving to give the rule of law, protection of internationally-recognized human rights, and democratic development the same priority as it has given to economic reform.
This is the toughest statement on China to have come out of the Obama Administration since he assumed office on January 20, 2009. One was expecting a statement of pro forma criticism without unnecessarily needling China. Instead, she has come out with a really strong statement which would be welcomed by the human rights organisations of the world. The statement came in the wake of the bonhomie that prevailed during the just concluded visit to Beijing by Timothy Geithner, US Treasury Secretary, to discuss bilateral economic relations. His discussions with the Chinese authorities were reported to have proceeded smoothly.
What then made Hillary Clinton come out with this statement, which is unusually strong for the Obama Administration? Two interpretations are possible. The first is that stung by criticism of what was seen by many as its soft line towards China, the Administration felt it necessary to correct this impression by articulating its position on the Tiananmen Square massacre in strong language. The second interpretation is that the strong line reflects a certain annoyance of the Obama Administration over China's reluctance or failure or both to exercise sufficient pressure on North Korea not to carry out its nuclear test of last month and its repeated firings of missiles.
In the past, there was considerable satisfaction in the US over China's role as a facilitator of the six-power talks on North Korea's denuclearisation. China is the only country in a position to exercise meaningful pressure on North Korea to give up the nuclear path. The indications are that apart from facilitating the talks, China did very little by way of exercising pressure on North Korea to co-operate with the international community. China strongly deplored the nuclear test, but beyond that it has done very little to make North Korea change its policy.
Is the strong statement on the Tiananmen Square massacre a veiled message to Beijing that if it does not exercise enough pressure on North Korea, that could have an impact on its improving relations with the US?
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.