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Thirty-one years ago today, the world watched a peaceful protest crushed by military violence. For weeks in the spring of 1989, thousands of idealistic university students gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of an admired Communist Party official who advocated for liberal reforms. The vigil morphed into a protest pushing for democratic ideals.
But on the evening of June 3, Chinese leadership moved troops in with tanks and guns to break up the demonstrations. The square was cleared by the end of June 4; estimates of how many people died in the violence range up to the thousands.
“Bloody Sunday in Tiananmen Square will be remembered by Chinese at home and abroad as one of the darkest days in China’s history, one which is likely to blacken the names of several Chinese leaders for decades to come,” The Washington Post wrote on June 5, 1989.
Mass hunger strike, Tiananmen Square 1989. Photo is by a friend who wants to share it anonymously. I first tweeted it last year. Now, on eve of 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Massacre, it’s even more important to remember those days of peaceful protest, and those ideals. pic.twitter.com/J6nEFg12OB
The next year, a 43-year-old New York City real estate mogul gave his thoughts on the massacre to the magazine Playboy. “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Donald Trump said.
“Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak … as being spit on by the rest of the world,” the future president continued.
China spent decades trying to make its people forget what happened, censoring art, literature and social media. But Trump has also tried to rewrite history. “I don’t say they were right. They weren’t right,” he said in the run-up to the 2016 election when asked about his Playboy interview.
If Trump the businessman once spoke admiringly of Beijing’s power, the politician now pushes against it. His administration has pursued aggressive trade policies against China and accused Beijing of a “coverup” during the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s human rights abuses have played a smaller but still significant role, too: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called China’s treatment of its Uighur minority the “stain of the century,” and the United States has sanctioned Chinese officials for human rights violations.
The administration voices support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the semiautonomous city state, about which Trump himself has invoked 1989. “I think it’d be very hard to deal if they do violence, I mean, if it’s another Tiananmen Square,” Trump told reporters last August.
But tensions have only gotten worse. This year, after Beijing approved a new national security law that will criminalize acts such as protesting in Hong Kong, the Trump administration moved to strip the island of its special status and impose punishments on China.
After Hong Kong police canceled an annual vigil for the victims of Tiananmen Square on Thursday, citing concerns about covid-19, Pompeo tweeted that it showed Beijing wanted to erode free speech in the city.
It starts; so soon. For the first time in 30 years, Hong Kong authorities denied permission to hold the #TiananmenVigil. If there is any doubt about Beijing’s intent, it is to deny Hong Kongers a voice and a choice, making them the same as mainlanders. So much for two systems.
This week, global human rights activists are not focused on Tiananmen Square, but on Lafayette Square, outside the White House. The killing of George Floyd on May 25 by a white police officer in Minneapolis fanned racial tensions throughout America.
Protests broke out in at least 380 cities across 50 states. After some demonstrations in Washington turned violent over the weekend, Trump moved to “put it down with strength.” Police and military officers on Monday used riot shields, batons and gas to clear a peaceful crowd of protesters in front of the White House just minutes before Trump was due to speak in the Rose Garden.
Only briefly mentioning Floyd, Trump threatened to deploy the military to American cities and warned that violent protesters would be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” He left the podium and walked to the fire-damaged St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held up a Bible.
This chaotic photo opportunity drew outrage domestically. Protesters returned to Lafayette Square in greater numbers the next day. Footage of the mayhem went internationally viral: Allies such as Australia have demanded explanations for the violence against their citizens, while U.S. diplomats abroad have struggled to explain the situation.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, in the midst of their own problems, found themselves voicing sympathy for the protesters rather than the government that supports them. “State violence feels all too familiar,” Jeffrey Ngo, a Hong Kong activist now based in D.C., tweeted.
Among Beijing’s “wolf warrior” diplomats and their allies, the crackdown was further evidence of U.S. hypocrisy. “Why does the U.S. side criticize Hong Kong police’s civilized and restrained law enforcement while it threatens to fire guns at domestic protesters and even deploy the U.S. National Guard to suppress them?” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said.
Many of Trump’s supporters are also vocal critics of Beijing. They argue that there is no contradiction, noting that the crackdown in Lafayette Square on Monday left no one dead and that the Trump administration’s missteps pale in comparison to Beijing’s acts of brutality.
However, Trump’s remarks in 1990 — and more broadly, his long history of harsh commentary about black people and state violence — do the argument few favors. In a phone call with governors this week, the U.S. president urged them to “dominate” the streets and “use the military.” It’s hardly a surprise: Trump has voiced repeated admiration for the violent tactics used by autocrats such as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.
June 3, 1989, the troops started clearing Tiananmen Square. QUITE an anniversary for a US senator to drop this. pic.twitter.com/wD7DztB1u4
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote an op-ed in the New York Times published online Wednesday that said there had been an “orgy of violence in the spirit of radical chic” and calling on the president to deploy the military to American streets. Cotton, perhaps the most relentless China hawk in Congress, did not mention the anniversary of Tiananmen Square in the article.
The United States is held to a different standard than China. But Trump’s domestic rhetoric, as well as the disregard for civilian life in U.S. military operations under his watch, have long made it hard for allies to stomach his foreign disputes with China, Iran, Venezuela and others and his proclamations about U.S. strength.
Even so, this week has proven an obvious surrender of soft power for the United States. China has tried for decades to make the world stop talking about Tiananmen Square: This year Trump may have done more to help than Beijing’s censors ever could.