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Exclusive: Japan saw “big picture” over 1989 Tiananmen crackdown

  • September 19, 2020
  • , The Asahi Shimbun , 6:56 p.m.
  • English Press

Tokyo, Sept. 19 (Jiji Press)–Japan prioritized a “long-term and big-picture” strategy over “democracy and human rights” in its response to China’s military crackdown on prodemocracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, recently disclosed diplomatic documents have shown.

Opposed to its Western allies’ joint sanctions against China over the incident, of which official death toll is put at 319, Japan was determined to watch over China “patiently and as warmly as possible,” according to the documents.

While the Western allies were toughening their sanctions against China, Japan was quick to resume its official development assistance to China.

The 3,123-page documents, disclosed by Japan’s Foreign Ministry at the request of Jiji Press, revealed the details of Japan’s then diplomatic policy for the first time.

On June 9, 1989, five days after the Tiananmen incident, the Japanese embassy in Beijing sent an urgent telegram to the Japanese foreign minister, pointing to the risk of foreign pressure on China resulting in the country further hardening its stance.

The embassy also mentioned the possibility that the Chinese government would agitate its people to spread antiforeign sentiment among them.

 A document dated June 22 that year called for prioritizing a “long-term and big-picture standpoint” over “our country’s values (democracy and human rights)” and supporting China’s reform and liberalization.

The document also said that Japan should respond to the incident “in a way that minimizes its impact,” and that it was “not wise” to “isolate China through the West’s concerted condemnation.”

A different document, compiled in the run-up to a meeting between then Japanese Foreign Minister Hiroshi Mitsuzuka and U.S. State Secretary James Baker in Washington on June 26 in the same year, indicated that Japan planned to “avoid reacting excessively or becoming emotional for no reason” and watch the situation in China patiently and with warm eyes.

 In a June 21 document, the Foreign Ministry suggested its plan to refrain from linking Japan’s ODA measures to the human rights situation in China.

“From a long-term perspective on the relationship with China, it would be an overreaction to reflect humanitarian and human rights issues in the basic policy on our country’s economic cooperation for China,” the ministry said.

Meanwhile, Japan was also concerned that its membership in the West could be questioned if it would emphasize too much the differences in thinking between the Asian country and its U.S. and European allies, according to the documents.

The reason why Japan was eager to avoid irritating China can be found in a July 11 document pointing out that Japan was seeing “a weak China” at the time, and that in history China had taken an exclusionist attitude when it had been weak.

“We also know well how harmful an exclusionist China is to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” the document said.

Appreciating Japan’s stance toward China, the Chinese government sought to break its international isolation by using Japan as a breakthrough. In August 1991, then Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu was the first among Western leaders to visit China since the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In October 1992, then Japanese Emperor Akihito paid a visit to China.

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