On the night of 3-4 June 1989, the Chinese military brought about a brutal and bloody end to nearly two months of peaceful protests that had seen tens of thousands gather in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand political reform. The military crackdown in the heart of the Chinese capital drew immediate condemnation from around the world as international media broadcast live images of security forces killing hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters – most of whom were unarmed – as they followed orders to retake control of the square.
After “June Fourth”, China became the object of international human rights scrutiny as never before. While European states and the US moved to impose sanctions on Beijing, China reacted defensively to what it claimed to be foreign interference in its internal affairs. Chinese diplomats were forced to counter attempts to pass condemnatory resolutions at the then UN Commission on Human Rights. Eager to put its foreign relations on a better footing, China sought to channel discussion of human rights away from multilateral institutions like the UN and into bilateral dialogues entered into on the basis of “equality and mutual respect”. By 1993, a gradual easing of sanctions paved the way for China to re-enter the international community. But China’s leaders came away from this experience further committed to the goal of securing the Chinese Communist Party’s political survival. Moreover, China emerged more confident about its ability to defend its interests on the international stage by vocally proclaiming a policy of “non-interference”, which would set the tone for its approach to human rights over the next decades.