WASHINGTON — Activists and U.S. lawmakers looking to highlight the 20th anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square are finding their efforts overshadowed by the emergence of a China crucial to U.S. economic and diplomatic efforts around the world.
Washington, D.C., has seen daily activities this week related to June 4, 1989, when China sent tanks and troops to crush demonstrations and shoot protesters seeking to remake the authoritarian Chinese system. There have been congressional hearings, appearances by the “Three Heroes of Tiananmen” and other activists, photo exhibits and candlelight vigils. Today, dissidents and lawmakers rallied in front of the Capitol, calling on the U.S. government to provide more support for pro-democracy efforts in China.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement that China, as an emerging global power, “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.”
But none of the commemorations of Tiananmen has demanded as much attention as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s trip to China this week to secure economic cooperation from the single-biggest holder of U.S. debt.
Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey criticized President Barack Obama for choosing the Tiananmen anniversary to make a major speech in Cairo meant as an outreach to Muslims. Obama and his administration should have been concentrating today on sending China a forceful message on human rights and on the Tiananmen crackdown, Smith said at the Capitol rally.
“We should be talking about human rights,” Smith said. “That should be our priority; after that comes the trade and the economic issues.”
Beijing’s importance to America was further underscored this week by a Chinese company’s purchase of the unit of bankrupt General Motors Corp. that makes Hummer sport utility vehicles and by worsening tensions with North Korea, where Chinese leverage is seen as key to getting the North to return to nuclear disarmament talks.
As the United States works to secure cooperation from a powerful, economically dynamic China, it has become difficult for activists and lawmakers to draw attention to Tiananmen and to complaints that China abuses its citizens’ rights.
Harry Wu, who spent 19 years in China’s “laogai” labor camp system, said the Obama administration’s position on China is understandable but frustrating.
The reason that events on Tiananmen are overshadowed, he said, is clear: “Because China is holding so much bonds. Because China became a major producer of the United States.”
China holds an estimated $1 trillion in U.S. government debt.
Clinton has called the U.S.-China relationship the world’s most important. In February, she angered activists and delighted China by saying during a trip to Beijing that the United States would not let its human rights concerns interfere with cooperation with Beijing on global crises.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, facing questions Wednesday about Clinton’s comments in February, said human rights are “paramount on our list.”
But Clinton is “communicating that we’re not going to take a cookie-cutter approach to human rights,” Crowley said. “She is interested in making sure that we address this in a way that is going to be most effective. In some cases, that will be public. In some cases, that will be private. In some cases, that will be both.”
Beijing has never allowed an independent investigation into the military’s crushing of the 1989 protests, in which possibly thousands of students, activists and ordinary citizens were killed.