Foreign and Commonwealth officials under the John Major administration attempted to rally support for a resolution backed by the United States under former President Bill Clinton, but faced staunch opposition from major powers in the European Union at the time, declassified docs from the National Archives reveal.
The United Kingdom urged EU member-states to back a resolution condemning China for the June 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, despite a lack of progress from major nations in the bloc, the declassified docs dated 4 April 1997 found.
Fiona Mylchreest, former FCO private secretary, wrote to former Tory prime minister John Major calling for a European Commission on Human Rights (CHR) resolution condemning China’s alleged actions in Tiananmen protests.
The European Union had tabled a United Nations (UN) resolution co-sponsored by the United States and others to condemn China’s crackdown on protestors, but France blocked EU consensus on the resolution on 17 March, it read.
But it “would send the wrong signals if the resolution were to be dropped in the year of the Hong Kong handover” as well as “undermine the West’s position on human rights”, she added.
EU Division On Support for the Tiananmen Resolution
Spain and Italy backed France’s position and Germany remained “too tacitly” sympathetic, Mylcreest wrote in the letter.
She added a single nation would have to move forward with the resolution rather than via EU consensus.
“The US made it clear that they expected an EU country to table”, she said, noting that EU member-states had tabled previous resolution with Washington leading criticisms against Beijing.
But Dutch officials refused to table the resolution nationally as they held the presidency for the CHR at the time, but the UK lobbied “hard” to have Denmark lead in tabling the resolution, with the Netherlands taking similar measures, she added.
“Negotiations on several key Hong Kong issues are at a crucial stage and we were concerned that the Chinese might block progress if the UK were to table the resolution,” she concluded.
Denmark later accepted the position to table the measure nationally against China, with Conservative Danish foreign minister Per Stig Møller confirming his country’s intention via telephone with British foreign minister Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
Media Coverage of France’s Resolution Refusal
News of the confirmation was found in a separate letter from British envoy John Holmes, who noted critical media coverage of the Jacques Chirac administration’s response to the resolution.
“The issue has now made the press, with the French satisfactorily in the dog house for abandoning principles for contracts”, Holmes wrote at the time.
But the French continued to refuse to co-sponsor the resolution, further letters revealed, stating that dialogue in high-level visits on trade and bilateral talks would lead to better outcomes.
The Dutch later adopted a hardline stance against EU member-states, adding the bloc could not condemn smaller nations if it had failed to condemn China for the Tiananmen Square incident in a bid to expose French “double-standards”.
Holmes added the resolution should be tabled by a “group of like-minded EU members” due to pressure from the media.
Outcome of Resolution in UN Human Rights Commission
Denmark’s support for the resolution backfired after Beijing blocked it in a crucial UN vote and suspended bilateral state visits with Copenhagen. The statement came just hours after China gathered enough votes at the United Nations Human Rights Commission (OHCHR) in Geneva to kill the US-backed resolution, according to US media at the time.
Member-states voted 27 to 17 to kill the resolution, with nine abstentions, defeating it for its seventh consecutive year.
The UK would continue to pressure China on human rights despite signing the 1997 Hong Kong transfer agreement.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests saw students gathering in Beijing suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army.
Youth protests erupted after the death of reformist Communist general-secretary Hu Yaobang amid rapid changes in the nation’s economy under then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and Chinese president Jiang Zemin.
Nearly 1m protestors demanded changes to national inflation, alleged corruption and greater participation in the democratic process, among others. Clashes with PLA soldiers are estimated to have killed several hundred to several thousand people.