In yet another reaction to the Chinese government’s brutal massacre of protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing earlier in the month, the House of Representatives unanimously passes a package of sanctions against the People’s Republic of China. American indignation, however, was relatively short-lived and most of the sanctions died out after a brief period.
On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops and police smashed into hundreds of thousands of protesters who had gathered in Tiananmen Square in central Beijing to protest for greater democracy and freedom. Thousands were killed and tens of thousands arrested. In the United States, the public and government reacted with horror. President George Bush immediately ordered sanctions against the Chinese government, including a ban on arms shipments, the cessation of high-level talks with Chinese officials, and a suspension of talks about nuclear cooperation. Bush hoped that these sanctions would be enough to indicate the American government’s displeasure and anger over the events in Tiananmen Square, but many members of Congress felt that the president had not gone far enough in punishing China for its egregious human rights violations. Over Bush’s objections, the House of Representations unanimously passed a new package of sanctions on June 29. The new package included the proviso that the previous sanctions enacted by Bush could not be lifted until there were assurances that China was making progress in the area of human rights. The new sanctions focused on economic and trade relations with China. They suspended talks and funds for the expansion of U.S.-Chinese trade, and also banned the shipment of police equipment to China.
In the face of these sanctions, China remained largely unrepentant. It was not until May 1990 that the Chinese government began to release some of the thousands of protesters arrested the year before. However, diplomacy and economics eventually won out over moral indignation. The United States government had spent nearly 20 years trying to cultivate better relations with China, which it saw as a growing power and one that might be profitably used to balance against the Soviet Union. In addition, American businesspeople were filled with anticipation about the economic possibilities of the Chinese market. Finally, in 1991 the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the end of the Cold War, and all talk of “evil empires.” In the face of these pressures and events, most of the sanctions fell by the wayside over the next few years.