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Uneasy partnership

June 4, 2009

After condemning China's crackdown on June 4, 1989, Europe cut ties and imposed sanctions and embargoes. Twenty years on, the EU and China are successful trade partners. DW-WORLD asks the experts: what happened?

A Chinese paramilitary police officer reacts to having his photograph taken in front of the image of the European Union (EU) flag at the EU embassy in Beijing, China
Relations have improved but there are still obstaclesImage: picture-alliance / dpa

When Chinese troops moved into Tiananmen Square, the large plaza at the heart of Beijing, on June 4, 1989 with orders to end a stand-off with thousands of pro-democracy protestors, the world watched in horror. After weeks of demonstrations, industrial action, hunger strikes and eventually pitched battles with the authorities, the Chinese government's use of the army of the People's Republic to crush the pro-democracy movement drew almost global condemnation from the international community.

The European Economic Community, the forerunner of the European Union, condemned the Chinese government's response and cancelled all high level contacts and loans. The EEC also set up an arms embargo against China which remains in place to this day.

"In the early 1980s, China was considered to be one of the more advanced of the Communist states in terms of reform and there were high expectations of China leading the other Communist countries and setting a good example," Dr. Yiyi Lu, senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute, told Deutsche Welle. "Then all of a sudden you have this major bloodshed. There was a sense of shock. Immediately the Europeans imposed economic sanctions on China and broke off high level contact."

However, despite the shock and action taken after the events in Tiananmen Square, it wasn't long before the channels of dialogue were reopened between the Europeans and China.

"Even in the immediate aftermath, it wasn't as though China was completed isolated because contact was necessary, given China's status," Yiyi Lu said. "At first there was a decision by Europe as a whole to break off contact at a ministerial level but then exceptions were made for the United Kingdom and Portugal who were in negotiations with China over Hong Kong and Macau. So, even at that time, the Europeans still needed to talk to China. Also, China was also one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It's one thing to isolate a small pariah state in the developing world but you need to be able to talk to countries like China who have such influence over global issues."

Growing economy leads to re-established ties

While relations were tentatively re-established through necessity, when opportunity knocked, a more solid working relationship of mutual benefit was forged.

Deng Xiaoping
"The Venerable Deng" crafted China's market economyImage: dpa

"A major turning point came in 1992 when Deng Xiaoping took his famous southern tour of China's developing industrial areas and announced that he would speed up economic reforms and move China towards a market economy," Yiyi Lu adds. "This prompted the Chinese economy to expand and it became a huge business opportunity and a temptation too great for western companies to resist."

Despite the obvious mutual benefits of the trade relationship that developed between the EU and China in the years after 1989 – the EU has since become China's most important trading partner and Europe is now China's biggest market – remnants of the issues that caused such outrage 20 years ago still color the relationship.

Twenty year arms embargo still causes strain

"I think the key moment of the last 20 years has been the long discussions in 2005 when the EU seriously looked at lifting the arms embargo which the EU put on China as a result of 1989, putting big restrictions on what kinds of technology, fuel, and military equipment could be sent to China," says Dr. Kerry Brown, a senior Asia expert with the Asian Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. "The embargo was briefly lifted but because of huge pressure from the US it was then re-imposed. From that moment, the Chinese saw the EU as being in the pocket of the United States, which has significantly more hard power than the EU. That really told China a lot about what kind of Europe it was now dealing with."

Chinese paramilitary police officers patrol in Weng'an county of Guizhou province, China
Some criticize the EU for dealing with ChinaImage: AP

The issues of human rights and democratic reform which were at the center of the Tiananmen Square protests continue to be contentious issues in EU-China relations. The EU has legitimate concerns about China's record on both issues, and yet continues to deal with China, much to the consternation of rights groups around the world. Both Yiyi Lu and Kerry Brown believe that the complex nature of global relationships makes it difficult for Europe to take a hard line with China and that, far from appeasing the People's Republic, its engagement with China allows the EU to exert influence.

"The EU countries of course say they are concerned and serious about human rights, but it's also important to trade with China and to develop economic connections with China so one thing doesn't necessarily exclude the other. That's the official position," says Dr. Lu. "But it's complicated by the fact that the EU is not a single country; some members may be more concerned about particular issues, others may have different priorities, so it becomes complicated by not having one interest and one agenda – you have multiple issues and agendas."

EU takes pragmatic approach in dealing with China

"The EU does accept some of what China says, that it has delivered collective economic rights to its people but the key issues remain the use of the death sentence, the rule of law, and the issues of political representation," Dr. Brown says. "What the EU has done, and what a lot of people have done, is to be pragmatic and accept some of the issues about China which have changed and recognize some of the positive things it has done. But it has also recognized that you can't walk away from your biggest trade partner.

A Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Cangan Blvd. June 5, 1989
Few could have predicted China's progress in 1989Image: AP

"The changes which have happened in China in the last 20 years, in terms of its economy and the changes of some of its political systems, have to be recognized," he continues. "In relation to the China of 1989, it's a lot more open and there is a lot more engagement, which is something that nobody expected at the time of the Tiananmen Square events.

"China acted very brutally in 1989 but in the last 20 years there have been areas of reform and President Hu Jintao has accepted that China will have to democratize," Brown adds. "The issue is how this will happen and what kind of democracy will be the result. I think this is something that the EU can exercise some influence over."

Expanding roles bring EU, China into more regular contact

Twenty years on, the relationship between Europe and China is more complex than ever. But Dr. Lu believes that this complexity has deepened the understanding and level of cooperation between them.

"The relationship is becoming more and more complex because, as China continues its ascension, there are many more areas where the EU needs to work with China," Lu says. "Compared to 20 years ago, there are many more issues that the EU has to talk to China about and work together on, such as the economic crisis and climate change. But this has also deepened the level of cooperation. In addition, both sides are also more experienced at dealing with each other, knowing each other's strategies, expectations and constraints."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Susan Houlton