The deaths of more than a thousand Chinese rallying for democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989 was a political earthquake that obliterated an already shaky relationship between the United States and China.
And Americans shouldn't be too anxious to re-establish ties with the communist nation.Those were the thoughts of Harry Harding, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
"Before you rebuild a house that has been damaged in a major earthquake, you examine the ground," he said Tuesday in a lecture at the University of Utah. "It would be very foolish to rebuild the same structure on the same site - you'd be asking for trouble."
He described the U.S.-China relationship before Tiananmen Square as a bridge anchored by cultural and political exchanges, investments, scholarly cooperation and tourism.
"We had Chinese students working as interns on Capital Hill and delivering Domino's pizzas to the White House," Harding said.
But that bridge was founded on quicksand - even before the Chinese government's bloody crackdown against the pro-democracy movement.
Part of the problem was the American public's false assumption that communist leaders in China really wanted democracy but wouldn't admit it publicly.
"The notion was that China was becoming a liberal democratic market-oriented society; we thought they were becoming just like us," he said.
So Americans were shocked when pictures of army brutality flashed across their TV screens during the crackdown. More than 70 percent of Americans approved of China before Tiananmen Square, but overnight - after witnessing the bloody scenes - more than 70 percent disapproved of the Chinese government, he said.
Harding said that it would be foolish for U.S. leaders and citizens to expect a relationship like the one enjoyed before the crackdown.
For one, the two governments have different perspectives on several global issues, including the environment, control of conventional weapons and the spread of AIDS. Those differences will make it difficult to forge an intimate political and cultural relationship, he said. Additionally, China has embarked on an unstable journey of political unrest that will most likely last for the next 10 years.
He suggested that "we build a modest relationship because it is suitable to the ground on which we are building."