Photo/Illutration Confidential records of the March 1990 talks held between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu following the Tiananmen Square crackdown to discuss how to respond to China. The document was declassified in December 2021 by the Japanese Foreign Ministry. (Naotaka Fujita)

Talks between U.S. and Japanese leaders in 1990 following the Tiananmen Square crackdown show that even 30 years ago Western nations were concerned with China’s human rights problems, according to recently declassified documents.

The discussions between Washington and Tokyo portray their struggle to mend ties with China and predict the future of the Chinese Communist Party, a year after Beijing resorted to force to contain the pro-democracy movement.

The material is among diplomatic documents released publicly by the Japanese Foreign Ministry on Dec. 22. Under the disclosure program, confidential records are released annually after 30 years.

In March 1990, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu opened their talks with a topic involving Beijing at the dinner party during the Japan-U.S. summit in Palm Springs, California.

According to the declassified documents, Bush expressed his concerns about future prospects and stressed the importance of cooperation between Washington and Tokyo while reaffirming his basic policy of keeping contact with China while calling for reform.

In response, Kaifu touched on Japan’s intention to work for improved relations between China and Western nations, including the United States, so that Beijing would not be isolated in the international community.

“For the goal, it will be necessary for the Chinese side to issue a positive message,” Kaifu said. “We are explaining that (to Beijing) on occasion.”

At the time, the U.S. Congress and European nations were harshly lambasting China’s bloody crackdown on Tiananmen Square student protesters in June 1989, provoking antipathy from Beijing, which described the incident as part of “domestic politics.”

Tokyo and Washington were at pains over whether to continue offering support for China in order to urge its leader, Deng Xiaoping, to maintain his economic reforms and open-door policy. Kaifu called it “impossible to forge ahead with a new round of yen loans much to my regret” during the bilateral meeting.

The Chinese side had not conveyed its “message” in reply to concerns raised by Japan, the United States and Europe about human rights problems there.

Bush speculated that the collapse of the Romanian administration of Nicolae Ceausescu likely had had a grave impact on China’s decision-making, whereas Washington had believed based on a few private comments from Deng that Beijing would relax its restrictions on human rights.

Bush held talks with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to declare the end of the Cold War in early December 1989. However, the Romanian government that had long survived the democratization wave in Eastern Europe was overthrown later that month, seemingly putting the Chinese Communist Party on alert.

Bush spoke about counterarguments coming via a “private” route from the Chinese side as well.

According to Bush, Beijing argued back, saying students and laborers tried to invade the residential district of the state’s leadership in the Tiananmen incident and asking what Washington would do if the same actions transpired around the White House.

Bush stated that Beijing criticized Washington by referring to the fact that National Guard personnel shot several college students to death in an anti-war demonstration in the United States amid the Vietnam War.

Along with the Tiananmen crackdown, the U.S.-Sino tensions had escalated over the handling of anti-establishment physicist Fang Lizhi, who took refuge at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing after the incident.

During the Japan-U.S. dialogue, Bush suggested a point of compromise, noting that Washington would take some friendly steps if China would implement one or two measures, such as resolving the issue of Fang and releasing detained student protesters. 

Bush added he expected those small changes would finally lead to Zhao Ziyang’s returning to power as well as Jiang Zemin’s deviation from Li Peng. These elements were supposed to help create circumstances in which Washington and Beijing could thaw the ice.

When the Tiananmen incident occurred, Li was involved in the crackdown as premier under the Deng leadership. Reformist Zhao was driven out of office as the Communist Party’s general secretary with Jiang taking over his role.

The U.S. president’s remark reflected his hope that the moving of the United States toward easing economic sanctions in exchange for China’s tackling human rights issues might result in the establishment of a more moderate administration in the Asian nation.

Toward the end of their discussions, the conversations between Bush and Kaifu appeared to indicate the grim future of China to come as Deng’s presence was declining in Beijing’s politics.

“The Chinese side insists the state has basic governing rights like every individual having fundamental human rights, and that the governing rights need to be respected to maintain the nation’s unity,” said Kaifu. “I told (China) that citizens come first for a state to come into existence so human rights are even more important.”

Bush agreed by saying China must have understood that but it has yet to comprehend the principle.

Following the meeting, Bush in May 1990 decided to keep listing China among the most favored trade partners of the United States. Beijing allowed Fang to leave China in June. Kaifu in July announced the lifting of the freeze on yen loans deriving from the Tiananmen crackdown.

Under such a circumstance, China stuck to its economic reform and open-door policy to realize a rapid growth afterward.

Despite all that, as shown in what is more recently reported in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, Beijing’s stance of not listening to opinions of other states while calling its human rights violations as falling under the scope of “domestic politics” has never changed.

The first historical resolution in 40 years adopted by the Communist Party in 2021 referred to the Tiananmen incident as “a severe political disturbance” and noted, “With the people’s backing, the Party and the government took a clear stand against the turmoil, defending China’s socialist state power.”


Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, said the United States retained its “engagement” policy following the Tiananmen incident.

“Washington continued negotiations (with China) to prevent the situation from worsening further, because cooperation toward China is essential with the Soviet Union in mind,” said Sahashi. “It kept trying to improve its relations with China.”

Ryo Sahashi, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, poses in Tokyo’s Hongo district in December. (Naotaka Fujita)

According to Sahashi, the stance reflects the deep-rooted expectation of the successive U.S. administrations that China would go in the right direction if its leader was replaced.

“These records show President Bush appreciated Deng Xiaoping as a reformist even after the Tiananmen crackdown,” said Sahashi. “Bush was clearly attempting to work closely with Prime Minister Kaifu, believing that reaching out to Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, would lead to improvement in human rights issues.”

Sahashi pointed out the document indicates Washington thought around that time it would still be able to reach a compromise with Beijing over problems involving human rights.

He described the documentation as being “precious,” because typical actions in Washington’s engagement policy for China were detailed in the records.

“The optimistic attitude was retained until immediately following the emergence of President Xi Jinping,” said Sahashi. “The policy eventually changed rapidly as China became increasingly high-handed.”

Explaining the importance of the records, Sahashi said: “Diplomatic documents are basically declassified in 30 years after their creation both in Japan and the United States. Washington used to be more active than Tokyo in disclosure, but Japan currently has a strong momentum. They are significant to look into contemporary history from various angles.”


This article is a part of a series of stories based on the diplomatic documents declassified by Japan’s Foreign Ministry in December 2021.