NEW YORK — The U.S. State Department on Wednesday condemned the “sheer brutality” Beijing displayed 31 years ago in its suppression of peaceful pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, as domestic division grows over whether force should be used to rein in protests on American soil.
“Today we honor the brave Chinese people whose peaceful calls for democracy, human rights, and a corruption-free society came to a violent end when the Chinese Communist Party sent the People’s Liberation Army into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, armed with tanks and guns,” department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.
“We mourn the victims of June 4, 1989, and we stand with the people of China who continue to aspire to a government that protects human rights, fundamental freedoms and basic human dignity,” Ortagus said.
The wording changed slightly from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement last year, which said the party’s “leadership” had sent tanks into Tiananmen. Pompeo in recent weeks has been questioning the “nature” of the Communist Party, labeling it as a “tyranny.” This year’s wording seems to blame the party itself, rather than the leadership of the time, for the 1989 crackdown.
The statement came as Washington’s credibility on human rights suffered a hit after President Donald Trump and some Republicans issued a threat of military intervention to protests across the nation.
The presumptive Democrats presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, also published a statement on the Tiananmen anniversary later on Wednesday, in which he portrayed Trump as a sympathizer of authoritarian regimes.
“Trump once called the demonstration in Tiananmen Square a ‘riot’ and commended China’s government for showing ‘the power of strength’ in crushing the pro-democracy movement,” Biden said in the statement.
“And, today, as president, he has echoes Chinese government propaganda in calling the demonstrations in Hong Kong ‘riots,’ praising Beijing for acting ‘very responsibly’ and declaring he is ‘standing with President Xi,'” said Biden, whom the Trump campaign has sought to paint as “soft on China.”
“Here at home, he’s turning tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protesters for a photo op, using the language of authoritarians, and sowing hate and division in the United States,” the statement continued.
U.S. demonstrators since last week have called for an end to the country’s police brutality and systemic racism, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25.
During a news conference Monday, Trump said he would use the military on protesters, whom he had previously characterized as “thugs,” citing incidents of looting in U.S. cities.
Some 1,600 troops have been sent to the Washington area, though on Wednesday the U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he did not support the idea of using troops on American civilians.
Also on Wednesday, Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican China hawk from Arkansas, in a New York Times opinion piece called for troops to “restore order” in America.
“The American people aren’t blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety,” Cotton wrote.
Pompeo on Wednesday posted a picture of him meeting with four participants in the pro-democracy movement that was suppressed by Beijing in 1989, with no caption.
A day earlier, Pompeo accused China of silencing those in Hong Kong who wished to hold vigils for victims of Tiananmen.
“It starts; so soon. For the first time in 30 years, Hong Kong authorities denied permission to hold the #TiananmenVigil,” Pompeo tweeted. “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.”
Over the past week, Washington has continued to thrash Beijing over issues including its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang and its aggressive expansion in the South China Sea.
A major move came Friday, when Trump said he would move to revoke Hong Kong’s special trade treatment due to Beijing’s encroachment on freedoms in the city, after Pompeo declared it was no longer autonomous from the mainland.
Also last week, Congress sent a bill addressing human rights for Uighurs in China to Trump’s desk. But a Tuesday tweet by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, promoting the legislation was flooded with comments calling for more action from Congress to address excessive force used on American protesters.
“Now please do something about the human rights violations happening here on our streets!” read the comment that received the most likes under Pelosi’s tweet. “People are dying!!” the user in Oregon posted.
Chinese officials on Twitter were quick to jump on the bandwagon and seize seeming parallels between protests in Hong Kong and the U.S. to defend its own conduct.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Saturday tweeted, “I can’t breathe,” in response to her U.S. counterpart’s call that “freedom loving people around the world must stand with the rule of law and hold to account the Chinese Community Party, which has flagrantly broken its promises to the people of Hong Kong.”