In the early 1990s, the Chinese economy began to grow and prosper once again, setting the tone for what would be a decade of impressive economic growth and a much slower but equally significant process of acceptance into the international community.
In July of 1990, Japan took the initiative to bring China back into the international community by advocating a resumption of Japanese loans to China. Sanctions had not been imposed in a uniform manner, so that they were not effective, and many nations faced dual pressures to continue trade relations while remaining critical of the Chinese government's human rights policies. In 1989, China's total volume of trade was $112 billion, which was a clear indicator of China's evolution into a globally significant market. By 1993 China's total volume of trade had increased to $200 billion. Thus, economic sanctions and containment tactics were clearly not an effective response to the Tiananmen incident in terms of weakening the Chinese economy.
Throughout the 1990s, China made some concessions to the international community, but refused to compromise on other issues. In response to international pressure, China released Wei Jingsheng, a prominent dissident, in 1993, but rearrested him six months later. Plans to construct the Three Gorges Hydroelectric Dam project went ahead despite U.S., German and other protests that the project would have environmental and social costs far outweighing any economic benefits.
The issue of Taiwan has been a persistant source of conflict in U.S.-China relations throughout the 1990s. The Taiwan Straits Crisis was a particularly low point in U.S.-China relations. The 1995 granting of a visa for Kuomintang presidential candidate Lee Tenghui's visit to a Cornell alumni gathering in the U.S. greatly angered the Chinese, because all relations between the U.S. and Taiwan were to be unofficial in nature. By allowing Lee to enter the country , the U.S. came very close to breaking its agreement with China under which high-level Taiwan officials are not allowed to enter the U.S. The State Department assured China that Lee would not be given a visa, but President Clinton buckled under congressional pressure and granted the visa to Lee.
Fearing the U.S. might become pro-Taiwan independence, Beijing flexed its muscles and responded by conducting short range missile tests off the coast of Taiwan. A year later, China again conducted missile tests close to Taiwan, trying to intimidate Taiwanese voters before the holding of Taiwan's first direct vote for president. Tensions escalated in the Taiwan strait and Lee wanted the US to intervene and protect Taiwan. In 1996, the U.S sent two aircraft carriers to the strait to assuage Taiwanese fear. Journalists played up "democracy in the shadow of war," reporting that the mainland planned to infiltrate Taiwan and kill presidential candidate Lee. Eventually, the crisis across the strait was peacefully resolved. The PRC realized that a show of force against Taiwan, made them appear a bully in the international community and that a long term strategy of peaceful reunification was the best method of uniting Taiwan with the mainland, so long as Taiwan understood that it was still a part of the mainland.
In 1997, Hong Kong reverted back to mainland Chinese rule after 100 years of British rule. Hong Kong rejoined the mainland as a special administrative region, under the much touted "one country, two systems" approach. Under this governing style, Hong Kong is a part of China, but many of its more capitalistic and democratic systems remain in place. The territory's legislature was abolished, which was greeted with fear of further curtailing of democratic ideals and a push towards socialist authoritarianism. Despite these fears, the "Hong Kong Changeover" went remarkably smoothly.
In the late 1990s, such issues as deployment of the theater missile defense system, trade rule discrepancies between the two countries and the mistaken Belgrade bombing of the Chinese embassy have increased tensions. The bombing shut down effective communications between the two nations several months, hindering World Trade Organization ascession negotiations.
On September 12, Chinese president Jiang Zemin and President Clinton met at the annual Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, held this year in Aukland, New Zealand, for an hour. Among other topics, their meeting included discussion on China's entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the U.S. position on Taiwan, the two most sensitive topics in US-China relations in recent months. China agreed to re-enter negotiations over entry into the WTO, which were suspended after the May 8 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. Jiang Zemin sought reassurance that the U.S. does not support Taiwanese independence while Clinton has been facing domestic pressure to urge China's leaders to renounce the use of force against Taiwan.
The Kuomintang (KMT), Taiwan's ruling party, recently incorporated into their party charter a theory of "state to state" relations, demonstrating their belief that China and Taiwan should be negotiating from equal positions. This theory, in direct contrast to China's view of Taiwan as a renegade province, led China to condemn the charter alteration, and warn Taiwan not to consider holding a referendum on independence. In light of recent events, such issues were bound to play an important role in the exchange between Clinton and Jiang.
During the 1990s, U.S. policy towards China underwent a gradual change from Clinton's original election platform, linking human rights to MFN (in light of the Tiananmen incident), toward a policy of engagement and strategic cooperation, with an increasing possibility for friendly relations in the next century. With continually increasing business, diplomatic and cultural contacts, we hope that this cooperation will continue and grow, well into the next century.