If you ask Donald Trump, the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square was just a “riot.” He voiced his patently false view of the crackdown on student protesters in Beijing in 1989 at last night’s debate. This is not the first time Trump has spoke positively of undemocratic governments and politicians during this campaign.
Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper about comments he made supporting oppressive foreign governments, and specifically his comments on the crackdown in 1989, Trump responded with typical ambiguity. “That doesn’t mean I was endorsing that. I was not endorsing it. I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn’t mean at all I was endorsing it.” But, just like the David Duke controversy, he didn’t condemn what was a deplorable act of violence against Chinese students demanding representative government, either.
His response isn’t surprising, though, coming from a man whose supporters cite his “strength” as a positive trait they support. Trump has made “strength” a central part of his brand as he barrels towards the Republican nomination. In a victory speech after the South Carolina primary, Trump glorified militarism and strength.
“We’re going to build our military so big, so good, so strong, so powerful that nobody is ever going to mess with us, folks,” he said. One wonders how else he envisions using that big, good, powerful military if he ever becomes president.
Trump’s description of the student-led protests to demand democratic rule in China, which he called riots, runs contrary even to contemporaneous American accounts of what happened that day. On the 25th anniversary of the crackdown, Kate Phillips, an American teaching English in Beijing, wrote her account of the military’s response to the protesting students.
“It was a massacre. Most of the carnage occurred not in the Square or right around it, but in the western-approaching streets that led to the Square. I viewed the videotapes of bloody bodies that came in with camera crews, and I made phone calls to local hospitals and to the Chinese Red Cross,” she said. “We kept a running tally of the number of dead, which had reached 2,600 before everyone was ordered to stop talking to us.” While the death toll has been disputed, there was no doubt that hundreds of people were killed.
Following the violent crackdown, the Chinese state media downplayed the number of civilians killed in the crackdown. According to Phillips, state television spent the next few days exaggerating the number of soldiers who were killed. “The government initiated a whitewashing campaign, insisting that only a handful of civilians had died but that hundreds of soldiers had been beaten to death by rabble-rousers. In the coming days, Chinese television replayed tragic footage of these soldiers’ beatings,” she said.
Trump has singled out China as one of the reasons the U.S. is losing respect and economic strength on the global stage. “China has gotten rich off us,” Trump recently told CNN. “China has rebuilt itself with the money it’s sucked out of the United States and the jobs that it’s sucked out of the United States.” This despite the fact that much of his branded merchandise is made by foreign workers.
The bigger issue, of course, is Trump’s support of the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent. But it fits with the patent disregard he has displayed for the press, protesters, and political opponents during his campaign. In many ways, Trump’s rhetoric indicates the sort of America he envisions: one that opens up libel laws and restores the “good old days,” when protesters left rallies in stretchers.