On June 3 and 4, 1989, Chinese tanks and soldiers took part in a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. We still don't know how many people were killed. In the aftermath, the U.S. and others in the global community imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions on Beijing, most of which didn't last long. But 24 years later, and just days before President Obama meets with China's Xi Jinping for the first time since Xi became president, the violence still clouds the U.S.-China relationship.
Congress made that clear Monday with a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on human rights in China. The full name of the hearing, the "Tragic Anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests and Massacre," speaks for itself. And the remarks of subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., were no more subtle. "China today is the torture capital of the world," he said at the panel of Chinese human-rights activists and Tiananmen witnesses and survivors.
Last Friday, the State Department got the Tiananmen ball rolling when spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. was remembering the "tragic loss of innocent lives" ahead of the anniversary, and renewing its "call for China to protect the universal human rights of all its citizens; release those who have been wrongfully detained, prosecuted, incarcerated, forcibly disappeared, or placed under house arrest; and end the ongoing harassment of human-rights activists and their families." This predictably left China none-too-pleased, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei calling the comments a "rude interference in China's internal affairs" and "political prejudice."
It's not surprising that the new Chinese government would be very uncomfortable with the U.S. pushing on Tiananmen. There's enough evidence for that in the creativity needed for users of China's micro-blog social network Weibo to even hint at the anniversary (a quick glance at the pictures collected by Quartz makes that obvious). And in what has become an annual tradition, China has taken a large number of preventive measures to keep remembrances quiet.
All of this places Obama and Xi in an interesting position when the two meet in California at the end of this week. Xi himself, as a member of China's princeling class, has ties to what happened 24 years ago. Although at the time he was just a local official in Fujian province, far from Beijing and Tiananmen, his father was then close with China's Communist Party leadership and was thought to have been briefly opposed to taking military action against protesters. Xi Jinping's wife, the singer Peng Liyuan, was part of a troupe that entertained troops in Tiananmen Square after the crackdown.
Even though the driving topic of the meeting will likely be cybersecurity, it's hard to imagine the seemingly always present 24-year-old conflict ever being completely absent.