US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with survivors of the Tiananmen Square crackdown on Tuesday – two days before the 31-year anniversary of the bloody events of June 4, 1989, and a day after US President Donald Trump pledged to use military force to quell nationwide protests against police killings of black people.
Pompeo met with four Tiananmen protest participants – Wang Dan, Su Xiaokang, Liane Lee and Henry Li – in a closed-door meeting at the State Department headquarters in Washington.
The State Department offered no details on what was discussed but 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.”
Growing out of public grief over the death of liberal icon Hu Yaobang, weeks-long protests calling for democratic reform in 1989 came to a brutal end when Chinese tanks rolled through Beijing to put down the unrest by force. The incident remains a highly sensitive subject for the Chinese government to this day.
“Thirty-one years later, the total number of missing or dead Tiananmen protesters is still unknown,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in the statement, released shortly after the anniversary arrived in China. “We reiterate our call for a full, public accounting of those killed or missing.”
Pompeo said little during the 40-minute meeting other than ask, “What can we do to help China have democracy?” according to Wang, who was once No 1 on Beijing’s most-wanted student leaders list. “It was mainly us doing the talking.”
Wang, 51, said he called on the Trump administration to raise issues around human rights – such as improving labour laws and relaxing internet regulations – in negotiations of any phase two trade agreement with Beijing.
He also proposed to Pompeo that the US should shift the emphasis of its dialogue with China from government actors to the country’s citizens and focus on educating the Chinese public on the “truth”, including the events of June 4.
Tuesday’s meeting came amid growing criticism of how the US administration and law enforcement authorities around the country are responding to protests that have erupted across more than 100 American cities over systemic racism and police brutality.
The protests were sparked by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned to the ground by a white police officer for nearly nine minutes, despite repeatedly calling out that he could not breathe.
On Monday evening, Trump vowed in the Rose Garden that he would deploy the military around the country, though he has yet to act on the threat.
Shortly after his televised comments, police fired chemical agents at nonviolent protesters in a square just north of the White House to clear a path for Trump to walk to a nearby church and pose for cameras holding a Bible, prompting outrage among US lawmakers, local officials and church leaders.
Citing that incident alongside rhetoric from Trump that was “effectively inciting violence against protesters”, Rob Berschinski, a former State Department official, said the administration had “ceded moral high ground in terms of standing up for democracy and human rights”.
“The hypocrisy of Secretary Pompeo meeting with those [Tiananmen] survivors within this particular 24 hours is obvious,” said Berschinski, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour during the Obama administration.
The subject of the current social unrest in the US was not raised in Pompeo’s meeting with the Tiananmen Square survivors, said Wang.
“We also don’t want the June 4 issue to be discussed in conjunction with other problems,” said Wang, who declined to comment further on the US domestic situation, citing insufficient knowledge of it.
The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment. On Twitter, Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-backed Global Times tabloid, jumped at the opportunity to cry foul.
“The US is proving the importance for China to restore order in 1989,” Hu said. “But back then, the destruction of China’s order was much worse than US’ now.”
Berschinski emphasised that direct equivalence should not be drawn between the administration’s response to recent protests and the “wanton killing of protesters” in Beijing three decades ago, and said he was not proposing that Pompeo should not have met with the Chinese pro-democracy activists.
“The way I would rectify this situation seems to be the way the administration is not going to rectify it,” he said. “Which is to lead by example at home.”
The administration’s hardline response to the nationwide unrest has also renewed interest in remarks Trump made 30 years ago commending the forcefulness with which Beijing cracked down on protesters on June 4.
“Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength,” Trump said in a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine. “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.”
Overseas impressions of American strength remains an important metric for Trump to this day, telling governors in a call this week that the Minneapolis police force’s response to protests there had become a “laughingstock all over the world”.
On the same call, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper called on governors to “dominate the battle space.”
Kori Schake, who served on president George W. Bush’s National Security Council, said during a Foreign Policy magazine webinar that it was “disgraceful and dangerous that the senior military and civilian leadership of the Department of Defence were talking about American cities as battle space and American citizens in the way that they are”.
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