US subnational responses to Tiananmen

The CCP regime’s suppression of the student protests in June 1989 produced a wide variety of responses among American states. Governor Cecil Andrus of Idaho (D, 1987-1995) suspended relations with Shanxi to demonstrate his abhorrence of the ‘brutal and unnecessary military intervention against the Chinese people’ (Florida Today 1989). Governor James Blanchard of Michigan (D. 1983-1991) urged his counterpart in Sichuan to use his standing within the Party to prevent further violence. He also called upon other governors to send similar requests to officials in their respective sister-states in China (Detroit Free Press 1989). His Democratic colleague in Oregon, Governor Neil Goldschmidt (1987-1991)—in a letter to his sister-state counterpart—expressed willingness to continue people-to-people exchanges. At the same time, however, he cancelled his upcoming meeting with the Fujian governor, explaining ‘[t] hough I have great admiration for the Chinese people, I find the recent actions of the central government deplorable’ (Statesman Journal 1989a).

Governor Richard F. Celeste of Ohio (D, 1983-1991) postponed a planned October trade mission to China and cancelled displays from its sister-state of Hubei in the August State Fair. His deputy press secretary told local reporters that ‘[h]e wants to send a strong message to the central government of China [...] The governor is outraged by the continual arrests and executions of students and workers’. This outrage, however, did not extend to discouraging any of the 150 local companies with business totalling $46 million in China. On the contrary, the Ohio governor’s office described any commercial activity in China as ‘clearly a private business decision’, and expressed hope for the continuation of long-term business relationships (News-Journal 1989).

In December 1989, Washington State considered the Tiananmen issue when the Chinese Association of Science and Technology proposed Seattle as the host city of a trade conference to be held in 1990. This event, expected to include over 500 Chinese participants, would have been the largest of its kind ever to be held in the United States. Reportedly, the state government’s restrained criticism of the Tiananmen massacre and the continuation of its sister-state and sister-city relationships with China played a role in the Association's choice of location. In exchange for hosting the conference, the Chinese offered to establish a permanent trade exhibition centre in Seattle, request landing rights in Seattle for Chinese airlines and to fund a management study programme at the University of Washington (Liu 2009). While the State Department opposed the conference due to strained US-China relations, the Washington State China Relations Council—an NGO established in 1979 to promote cooperation with the PRC—supported the event, arguing that Beijing had taken positive steps to mend its damaged ties with the US. In February 1990, the Council led a 16-member delegation to China to discuss the details of the proposed conference with the Chinese Association of Science and Technology, including the Council's Executive Director William B. Abnett, Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munroe and representatives from People-to-People

Diplomacy vs paradiplomacy 157 International, the Port of Seattle, the Seattle World Trade Centre, Seattle’s Chongqing Sister City Association, the University of Washington and a local logging company (Liu 2009, 110). Four months later, Abnett testified before Congress in support of renewing China’s Most Favourite Nation status. The Chinese trade conference took place in Seattle in late 1990. By the end of that year, Washington State registered $3 billion in trade with China, the largest amount of all states (Liu 2009, 113).

Many US municipalities experienced a fallout with Chinese cities over Tiananmen as well. In total, 12 of 40 cities with Chinese ties suspended relations (Shuman 1989/90, 4). In Washington, Council Chairman David A. Clarke co-sponsored a resolution to shelve the city’s sisterhood ties with Beijing, established five years earlier. ‘I don’t want my city to have a friend who is a mass murderer’, he declared to a crowd of 2,000 demonstrators protesting outside the Chinese Embassy. Only a few minutes later, Mayor Marion Barry announced the indefinite suspension of all exchange programmes with the Chinese capital and joining in the protestors’ chants of ‘stop the murders!’ and ‘freedom now!’ (Burlington Free Press 1989). Similarly, New York Mayor Ed Koch suspended all twelve cooperative projects with Beijing (CID 1989, 20).

On the West Coast, San Francisco suspended relations with Shanghai (Wong 1989). Walter Fong, a co-chairman of the city’s sister-city committee, remarked that Mayor Art Agnos wanted his Shanghai counterpart to know that future contacts between two cities would depend on the extent of democratic change in China (CID 1989, 19). Los Angeles City Council also suspended relations with its sister-city of Guangzhou (McMillan 1989). Cerritos City Councilman Daniel Wong took a more direct approach by travelling to China and meeting PRC Premier Li Peng (considered as one of the architects of the Tiananmen crackdown) on 1 July 1989. Wong claimed that he ‘criticized Li Peng right to his face’, and added ‘You have to go into the lion’s den (CID 1989, 21).

In Hawaii, Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi supported a proposal to sever Oahu’s sister-island relationship with Hainan and held that no matter the city council’s decision on the issue, he would not personally acknowledge any Chinese government official. He further advocated economic sanctions against China (Honolulu Star-Bulletin 1989a). Local commentators pointed out the Honolulu mayor’s hypocrisy by noting his upcoming visit to Kaohsiung, a city he had visited on numerous occasions despite the KMT’s oppressive rule in Taiwan (Honolulu Star-Bulletin 1989b). Perhaps in response to such criticisms, upon his return from Taiwan, Fasi penned an open letter to President Bush, calling on him to recognize the steps made by the ROC government towards a more open and democratic political system. He said: ‘I know you are not going to invite the president of the Republic of China to come to the US on an official state visit. 1 ask you, however, to acknowledge the remarkable political progress made by the Chinese government on Taiwan, especially in the face of the contrasting repression coming out of Peking' (Honolulu Star-Bulletin 1989c).

Some cities adopted more cautious responses to the Tiananmen incident. Portland Mayor Bud Clark cancelled a scheduled visit to Beijing in September 1989, but still visited Suzhou on his tour of East Asia (Statesman Journal 1989b). In Baltimore, Dean Esslinger, then chair of the sister-city committee, declared the continuity of relations with Xiamen, but hinted that any ‘further exchanges’ would depend on his committee’s assessment of ‘how things go’ (CID 1989, 20). Ignoring citizens' calls for suspension of ties with Nanjing, the St Louis government resolved to maintain relations. Nonetheless, to placate critics, it cancelled a visit to China (planned for October 1989) and vowed to reassess a Nanjing trade fair to be held in St Louis in 1990 (CID 1989, 20).

In Orlando, municipal representatives warmly greeted delegates from sister-city Guilin, despite public calls at city council meetings to sever the relationship. Mayor Bill Frederick, likening such action to holding Orlando responsible for scandals in the US Capitol, said: ‘I don’t think that the city of Orlando would want to be held captive for the excesses of Watergate. I don’t know of any reason to alter what has so far been a pleasant relationship’ (Mitchell 1989).

By late 1989, Michael Shuman (1989/90, 4), President of the Centre for Innovative Diplomacy, argued against US municipalities taking a high moral ground and suspending relations with their Chinese counterparts:

Sister city relationships should not be seen as gifts to be offered when national relations are good and withdrawn when relations sour. Sister cities are tools for increasing understanding, preventing war, and promoting human rights. And it is when relations between two countries deteriorate, as they have between the United States and China, that sister cities can do the most good. The fact that Americans prefer to stick to ‘safe’, ‘non-political’ activities like art exchanges, tourism, and trade should not limit our vision of what else sister cities can contribute [to] help the fledgling democracy movement in China.

Shuman (1989/90, 5) added that the Tiananmen massacre ‘should be the beginning of a new era of sister cities, where human rights are promoted with care rather than ignored in righteous inaction'.

Governor Mike Sullivan of Wyoming (D, 1987-1995), upon his return from a trade delegation to Taiwan in June 1989, predicted that the political unrest in China would strengthen US-Taiwan economic ties due to the perceived risk of doing business in the mainland (Farris 1989). This, however, did not happen as the US trade with Taiwan in 1990 slightly decreased, while US trade with China grew, driven primarily by imports (see Graph 8.1).

The US subnational censure of China made no discernible impact on states and municipalities’ engagement with Taiwan. San Francisco’s and the Washington State’s decisions in 1989 to open trade offices in Taipei were perhaps the only examples of subnational governments reassessing their relations with Taiwan in the aftermath of Tiananmen (Statesman Journal 1989c).


Graph 8.1 US trade with Taiwan and China, 1985 2019 (in billions of US dollars) Source: US Census Bureau (n.d.) ‘Trade in Goods with Taiwan', eign-trade/balance/c5830.html, accessed 19 July 2020; US Census Bureau (n.d.) ‘Trade in Goods with China’,, accessed 19 July 2020.

Washington State’s office opened in December 1989 and continues its operations today (see Table 7.1). San Francisco’s office began operating in October 1991 (see also Chapter 9).

Texas and F-16s

While the State Department did not seem to interfere with the states’ responses to Tiananmen, it clashed with Texas in 1992, when the ROC government expressed interest in purchasing up to 150 F-16 fighter jets. The Pentagon reportedly supported the sale but the State Department opposed it, fearing Beijing’s retaliation against American businesses in China as much as it feared upsetting its carefully crafted One China policy. In June 1992, the Bush administration formally rejected Taipei’s request (Mann 1999, 265). In late July, General Dynamics—the US’ second-largest defence contractor— announced it would cut 5,800 jobs from its Fort Worth factory in Texas by the end of 1994 if it failed to receive any new contracts for F-16s. Local union leaders argued that up to 3,000 jobs could be saved if Washington were to permit the F-16 sale to 'our friends in Taiwan’, rather than support ‘hardcore Communists’ (UPI 1992). Workers at F-16 suppliers across 47 states also faced job losses (Hickey 1994, 80).

The Texas state government immediately became involved. Governor Ann Richards (D, 1991-1995) urged Bush to 'recognize that the term "Buy American” means American jobs’. She further argued: '1 don't know what deals have been made between George Bush and Communist China, but when it means the loss of 5,800 workers by the end of 1994 in Fort Worth, Texas, it’s time to wake up and smell the coffee’. Referring to Taiwan’s alleged deal to buy French Mirage 2000 fighters, Richards concluded: ‘It is a travesty that General Dynamics loses money and Texas loses workers to the French government because of our refusal to deal in the global marketplace’ (Krishnan 1992; Hickey 1997, 86; Tkacik Jr 2007).

The Texas Congressional delegates also supported Taiwan's request. Most notably. Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D) condemned the Bush administration for failing to meet the defence manufacturing base’s needs. He said: ‘I am angered [...] by the knowledge that the United States government is willing to stand by and allow 3,000 of these Texas jobs to be exported to France’ (Mittelstadt 1992). He further demanded an explanation of the decision from a State Department official during a hearing on China's trade status: ‘No one thinks that Taiwan is going to attack China. That’s not contributing to a military imbalance that’s going to give us problems’ (Austin American-Sta-tesman 1992).

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bush faced Governor Clinton, who placed economic issues at the centre of his campaign. As the job losses at General Dynamics would have advantaged Clinton, Bush had to rethink the F-16 issue. In late July 1992, at a meeting with Texas radio industry executives, he announced his readiness to take ‘a new look’ at Taipei’s request (Sia 1992).

Meanwhile, the Texas Congressional delegation continued lobbying Washington. In a lengthy speech to the Senate, Bentsen characterized the Bush administration’s arms trade policy as both outdated and detrimental to the local economy. He argued that in the post-Cold War era, Washington no longer needed the China card to counter the Soviet threat. In this new geopolitical context, the strategy of ‘coddling Communist China, while treating Taiwan as a pariah' no longer made sense. Praising Taiwan’s economic miracle and democratization, Bentsen urged Bush to allow the sale, not only to support jobs in Texas, but also—if not above all—to help Taiwan modernize its ‘obsolete tactical fighter force’ (Bentsen 1992).

In August 1992, 100 members of the House of Representatives wrote a bipartisan letter urging Bush to approve the sale in order to balance against China's growing military power and to preserve jobs for American defence manufacturers (Hickey 1994, 82). Unsurprisingly, most of the signatories represented fighter jet-producing constituencies. The letter’s chief author, Representative Robert Dornan of California (R) declared no preference as to which US planes Taiwan would buy, be those from General Dynamics or McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the latter of which operated facilities in his district (Olmos 1989; Orlando Sentinel 1992). Coincidentally, Dornan’s Congressional district contained a large Taiwanese immigrant population.

Eventually, Bush relented. While on the presidential campaign trail in early September 1992, he announced to cheering workers at General Dynamics in

Fort Worth that the sale of 150 F-16A/B to Taiwan (in a deal worth about $6 billion) would go ahead (Washington Post 1992). When doing so, however, he emphasized that his decision did not undermine the One China policy and the US recognition of the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China (Kan 2014, 50). Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (D) wryly commented that the timing of the decision coincided well with the election year, but also noted ’my instinct would be to be grateful for the announcement rather than commenting on its motivation' (Hartford Courant 1992). Bush's reversal of his administration’s arms sale policy towards Taiwan may have helped him in winning Texas’s electoral votes. However, this victory could not stave off his national defeat to Clinton, who promised to support the sale of F-16s to Taiwan if elected (Lasater 2000, 156).

PRC Vice Foreign Minister Liu Huaqui predictably called Bush's decision ’short-sighted’, ‘perfidious’ and ‘treacherous’. A series of high-level meetings with the Chinese officials managed to reduce Beijing’s retaliatory measures to mere rhetoric (Chang 2000, 72-73). The PRC authorities did not punish Texas, facilitating the state’s sisterhood relationships with Yunnan and Shandong (established in September 1992 and December 1993, respectively) (see Table 6.1).

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