Financial Times

History tells us to keep the arms ban on China

By Wang Dan
Published: March 23 2005

The likelihood that the European Union will delay plans to lift its embargo on arms sales to China is a welcome sign of pressure from various quarters to maintain it. But the push within Europe to lift the ban has acquired momentum, and the issue is bound to return high on the agenda of EU leaders soon.

That is why it is important to remember why the EU imposed its embargo in the first place: in response to the June 1989 massacre of pro- democracy demonstrators around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Ironically, perhaps, it was classical European thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke whose ideas of democracy and liberty enlightened me 16 years ago, when I was studying history at Beijing university. One episode of history that ignited my idealistic passion was the French revolution; its 200th anniversary coincided with the 1989 Chinese student protests. Europe has made an important contribution to history by firmly grounding its societies in ideals of democracy and freedom. This should make EU leaders proud.

When the EU adopted its resolution 16 years ago to ban weapons sales to China, it was an expression of moral outrage at the Chinese government's use of the military against peaceful demonstrators. Such reactions from the international community both moved and inspired us - the student leaders who were arrested, imprisoned, or exiled at the time. They showed us that justice remained a fundamental principle in international relations. In this context, our concern about the EU's move to lift the embargo is surely understandable.

The arguments in Europe in favour of lifting the ban imply - or in some cases directly suggest - that the appalling human rights conditions that prompted the embargo in 1989 have been rectified. That is not the case. Some European leaders have even commended China for progress in human rights. Such claims reveal ignorance of the realities in China. No doubt everyone has watched the country's economic progress, but in political reform China has gone backwards.

Take my own example. In 1988, the government did not force me to disband, although it was unhappy with, the pro-democracy group I organised, which often met openly on campus at Beijing university. Today, however, when Yang Zili, a Beijing university student, and three other youths held private meetings to discuss political issues, they were sentenced to many years in jail and subjected to abuse in prison. Is this progress or regression?

Some European leaders have referred to the June 4 massacre as belonging to "another era". This is not factually correct. Today, many participants in the 1989 democracy movement are in exile overseas and barred by the Chinese government from returning to their country. My own story is, again, an example. After my Chinese passport expired, the Chinese embassy in America refused to extend it, depriving me of my citizenship rights - simply because I participated in the 1989 movement. Today, the government still prohibits anyone from publicly mourning those killed in the protests. There seems little evidence that conditions are even nearly ripe for lifting the EU's weapons ban.

I understand the importance of engaging China. I personally supported the US move to grant China "most favoured nation" trading status, and also the country's bid to host the Olympic Games. But selling weapons to China is an entirely different matter. From solid trading relations, ordinary Chinese people can benefit; but weapons sales only benefit the officials involved in the arms deals and the Chinese government. They do nothing to help development of Chinese civil society or raise living standards of ordinary Chinese. It puzzles me why some EU leaders want to lift the arms ban while the Chinese government still refuses to deal with questions of truth and accountability concerning the June 4 massacre, and while human rights conditions in China continue to deteriorate.

To me, Europe symbolises the origin of humanity's quest for freedom. My respect for Europe comes from its protection of democratic traditions and the values of freedom. As China's regime still defends the slaughtering of peaceful student protesters, the notion that the EU might be willing to make more weapons available distresses me greatly; I can only hope that Europe will keep our hopes alive.

The writer, a Chinese student leader in the 1989 democracy movement who was imprisoned for seven years for his political activism, was exiled to the US in 1998 and is currently studying for a doctorate in history at Harvard University