Tiananmen June 4, 1989: Taiwan’s Reaction

Written by John F. Copper.

Image credit: Tiananmen Square: The man and the white lights will be painted or not? by Michael Mandiberg/Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0

June 4, 1989 was a day that stunned Taiwan as if a powerful earthquake hit the island. Not only did the government of China employ the military, including tanks, to throttle the democracy movement in progress in Beijing that day, but also it labelled Taiwan as responsible for instigating it.

To residents of Taiwan the Chinese government had lurched politically to the left, regressed to hard-line communism, and turned its back on reform and democracy.

Both the government and the people in Taiwan were appalled by what had transpired. Both expressed their anguish and anger. High officials criticized the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party and denied Taiwan had any involvement in starting what occurred.

But in retrospect what Taiwan did not do was as important, arguably more important, than what it did do.

President Lee Teng-hui notified his foreign ministry to contact the Bush administration in the U.S. and recommend it condemn China for its actions and apply sanctions. However, 35 other Asian nations did not make such a proposal. Lee thus decided not to go further with his.

He had good reason. In the late 1960s as a consequence of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and China’s involvement in the Vietnam War to help Hanoi defeat American forces, Taiwan saw an opportunity to vilify and isolate China. That did not work. President Nixon sought a rapprochement with China that had a different effect, i.e. bringing China into the global community of nations. Taiwan suffered the consequences.

At the time of Tiananmen President Lee had adopted a foreign policy strategy called flexible diplomacy meaning Taiwan needed as many foreign contacts as possible, including China. He continued that policy.

Lee had other motives for not pursuing punitive actions against China. One was that shortly before President Chiang Ching-kuo passed away in early 1988, he had ended Taiwan’s policy of not allowing people contacts across the Taiwan Strait. President Lee had decided to continue that policy and Taiwan’s residents visiting China had grown in numbers. In fact, in 1989 the visits grew fast. Lee did not want to halt this.

An even bigger reason was that cross-Strait trade was booming. In went on to grow from $5.2 billion annually in 1990 to $31.2 billion in 2000. In 1989, of the then $3.3 billion in trade, Taiwan’s exports were $2.7 billion—a huge balance cum windfall in Taiwan’s favour.

Add to that China was a growing target of Taiwan’s foreign direct investment (FDI). In 1992, Taiwan became China’s largest provider of FDI.

President Lee and other top leaders in Taiwan were fully cognizant of China’s decade-long boom in 1989 and the fact that there were now three economic blocs in the world—America, the European Community and East Asia—and China was a big player in the latter. It would have been a mistake for Taiwan not to pursue a foreign policy based on understanding this.

Thus, in October 1989, just four months after Tiananmen, President Lee established the Mainland Affairs Council to manage relations with China in recognition of its importance to Taiwan.

Exactly a year later Lee established the National Unification Council to discuss Taiwan becoming part of China. In March 1991 the Council issued the National Unification Guidelines that set forth steps for Taiwan to join China.

In 1992, Taiwan’s representatives met with China’s officials to agree on a one-China policy that gave each side the right to define “China.” It was called the “1992 Consensus.” The sticky problem of whether there was one China or two was resolved.

The 92 Consensus set the stage for closer economic, people-to-people relations and much more across the Taiwan Strait. In fact, an era of good feelings and deeper interactions followed.

Of course, it is easy to argue that President Lee was not sincere about Taiwan unifying with China. His subsequent statements and actions reveal that.

But the facts also say that Lee did not adopt a policy of making China a pariah or isolating and punishing China for the events of June 1989. In fact, Taiwan’s relations with China did not get worse; they got better.

John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor (emeritus) of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of more than thirty-five books on China, Taiwan and U.S. Asia policy.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connexions between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.


  1. Displaying outrage about the crimes of others gives you the deep satisfaction of being righteous. But, please, do not get carried away by your indignation, it might hurt their feelings and, consequently, your prosperity.

    The cynic sighs and mutters: “What a disgusting show.”


  2. “But the facts also say that Lee did not adopt a policy of making China a pariah or isolating and punishing China for the events of June 1989.”

    In defence of then president Lee I suggest to consider that the ROC had neither the international standing nor the means to make such a policy effective. So, why should Taiwan risk hurting itself without the smallest chance to make any difference?


  3. “In fact, Taiwan’s relations with China did not get worse; they got better.”

    Who dares to blame them. The US? The EU? The appeasement policy of those powers, who could have made a difference, encouraged the PRC to become as obnoxious as it is now.


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