GOP frontrunner Donald Trump characterized the peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Tianamen Square as a “riot” when defending old comments lauding China’s strength in crushing the protesters.
Demonstrators filled the square in Beijing in April 1989, erecting a “goddess of democracy” statue mirroring the Statue of Liberty that faced the square’s Mao portrait. As many as a million protesters were in the square at one time, and hundreds of other cities across China saw similar peaceful occupation, sit-ins and hunger strikes from those demonstrating against the communist regime.
The regime sent tanks and troops into the square on June 4 and began firing on the unarmed civilians. Some tried to fight back in whatever way they could with rocks or fists, but an unknown number of demonstrators were massacred by government forces. The Chinese government branded the protest a riot intended to take down the communist regime.
In a March 1990 interview with Playboy, Trump talked of his visit to the Soviet Union and “the demonstrations and picketing.”
“Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand,” Trump said, calling the leader who ushered in the perestroika and glasnost that led to the fall of the communist regime there a man of “extraordinary weakness.”
Asked if he meant a “firm hand” as in China, Trump responded, “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. 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.”
During Thursday night’s CNN debate in Miami, host Jake Tapper cited the Tiananmen remarks in the context of “concern about comments you have made praising authoritarian dictators.”
“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,” Trump replied. “As far as Putin is concerned, I think Putin has been a very strong leader for Russia. I think he has been a lot stronger than our leader, that I can tell you. I mean, for Russia, that doesn’t mean I’m endorsing Putin.”
“But the word ‘strong’ obviously is a compliment and many people would look at what the Chinese leaders have done and what Putin is doing as atrocities,” Tapper noted.
“I used to think Merkel was a great leader until she did what she did to Germany. Germany is a disaster right now. So I used to think that,” Trump responded. “And strong doesn’t mean good.”
Tapper threw the question over to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was outspoken against the Tiananmen Square massacre when he was a member of Congress.
“I think that the Chinese government butchered those kids,” Kasich said. “And when that guy stood in front — that young man stood in front of that tank, we ought to build a statue of him over here, when he faced down the Chinese government.”
Some leaders of the Tiananmen Square protest movement testified on Capitol Hill in May 2014 to mark 25 years since the massacre, telling a House subcommittee they were crushed that America didn’t step in to help back then but are more troubled about what the U.S. government isn’t doing as human rights abuses in China increase to a rate not seen since that era.
Major Yan Xiong was dubbed one of the “most wanted” student leaders after the Tiananmen protests. He recalled rushing toward the square after hearing that troops had marched into the Forbidden City; he ran into walls of people forming human chains, trying to keep their countrymen away from the slaughter. Xiong got through and witnessed “horrific” scenes.
“Soldiers with helmets and AK-47s were randomly shooting at protesters as they chanted slogans and tried to hold their ground. My friend and I crept forward, the sound of bullets, shooting, crying, and tanks blended together,” he told the committee.
Xiong spent time in prison before coming to the United States and joining the U.S. Army as a chaplain.
Zhou Fengsuo, co-founder of the rights group Humanitarian China, was No. 5 on the government’s most-wanted list after Tiananmen. He saw children as young as 9 shot to death, and dozens of students’ bodies stacked in a bicycle shed at a hospital. As the world watched the brave unknown “Tank Man” halt a column of approaching tanks, Zhou stressed that off camera tanks chased down students and killed many.
“If China remains a dictatorship it could be even more bloody than the 20th century,” he warned.