China wasn’t the only one who came away empty-handed from the Beijing summit. No progress was made on a longstanding, if nearly forgotten, issue: the continued imposition of sanctions against China for the June 4, 1989 killings in and around Tiananmen Square. At the time, some US Congressional leaders called for swift punitive action, including cutting off military cooperation and technology transfers, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and withdrawing (or placing conditions on) China’s most-favored-nation trade status. Holding to a more measured approach, President George H. W. Bush announced a suspension of military contacts and some technology transfers and the cancellation of planned US-China military talks, but initially rejected the possibility of sanctions.

By July 1989, both houses of Congress had passed the so-called Tiananmen Sanctions as a package of amendments in a foreign aid authorization bill. The legislation put into law two measures Bush had just announced: the ban on arms sales and the suspension of high-level military talks. Restrictions in place on licenses for satellites and financing by US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) were extended. Other sanctions denied export of crime-control and detection equipment, banned licenses for goods or technology that could be used in nuclear production, and strengthened US export controls on so-called dual use goods. Language in the bill provided flexibility in implementing the sanctions; they could be removed or altered if the president deemed it was “in the national interest” of the United States to do so.

Most of the Tiananmen Sanctions have been bent or lifted, with presidents assuming greater authority in deciding whether and how to enforce them. President George H. W. Bush waived provisions of his own executive order in allowing the sale of four Boeing commercial jets to China and—though boycotting high-level talks was not written into the sanctions bill—authorizing US-China meetings between senior officials to continue. President Bill Clinton removed the sanctions on the USTDA and materials that could be used in nuclear production. President George W. Bush made exceptions to help China combat terrorism, issuing waivers to allow the sale to China of police technology, sensors used in aircraft, and a bomb containment and disposal unit. US companies do business in China that skirts the trade restrictions, such as when surveillance equipment and computer software were sold to Chinese security agencies before the Beijing Olympics. Questions have been raised as to whether sales of computer technology to China’s Ministry of Public Security violate the prohibition on selling crime control and surveillance equipment.

The European Union, which put an arms embargo on China after June Fourth, has long debated whether or not to lift it. In 2005, it nearly did so when France and Germany lobbied for EU manufacturers to be able to sell their products to China. Against opposition from within the EU (notably Scandinavian countries) and the United States, the EU dropped the idea. Even if the sanction were lifted, it is unlikely EU arms manufacturers would make large sales of high-tech military goods.

The continued use of sanctions against China has important, if unseen, consequences. The United States is not in a good position to persuade Beijing to support sanctions against other countries (as in the case of Iran) when China itself is on the receiving end of US sanctions. The controls on technology sales to China no doubt contribute to the yawning trade deficit with the country. Perhaps most significantly, the sanction against OPIC financing for projects with Chinese partners precludes the possibility of US-China cooperation in humanitarian efforts in the developing world, notably in Africa, where China’s influence has reached a level unimaginable when the Tiananmen Sanctions were imposed more than 20 years ago.

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