A scathing statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about one of the most controversial moments in modern Chinese history has led to a shocking series of rebukes from Beijing.
The escalation, in which Chinese officials have called Pompeo’s comments “babbling nonsense,” shows how sensitive the protests at Tiananmen Square remain even three decades later — and how the US purposely aims to provoke China.
In April 1989, roughly 1 million pro-democracy advocates gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in the heart of the sprawling capital city. For six weeks, they pushed the communist regime to open the nation’s political system in hopes that it would move away from decades of authoritarian leadership.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Chinese troops entered the square in the early morning of June 4 and throughout the day opened fire on the protesters. Beijing has never released an official death toll, though estimates from human rights groups and foreign organizations put it anywhere from a few hundred to about 10,000.
The symbolism of Tiananmen Square — where the Communist Party brutally gunned down citizens pleading for democracy — remains deeply sensitive and threatening to the Chinese regime.
The Communist Party still runs the country and, despite making some economic and political reforms, views the events surrounding the massacre as a threat to its power. It’s spent the years since mostly denying that the events at Tiananmen ever took place.
In stark terms, he took the regime to task for suppressing the history of the event, imprisoning pro-democracy citizens, surveilling its 1.4 billion people, and continuing to deny human rights to millions in the country. While those comments reflected similar statements by his predecessors, the real dagger came when he added that the US had lost its patience with China.
“The United States hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society. Those hopes have been dashed,” Pompeo said. “China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests.”
He continued: The US “urge[s] the Chinese government to make a full, public accounting of those killed or missing to give comfort to the many victims of this dark chapter of history.”
In other words, Pompeo said China not only had to come to terms with what happened in the square but also had to change pretty much everything about its repressive governing style.
Beijing, unsurprisingly, disliked Pompeo’s comments and made two separate statements fully denouncing him.
A spokesperson for China’s embassy in the US said on June 4 that the secretary’s remarks came “out of prejudice and arrogance. ... The Chinese government and people reached the verdict on the political incident of the late 1980s long ago.” That same day, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang told reporters during a regular Beijing press conference that the secretary’s “lunatic ravings and babbling nonsense will only end up in the trash can of history.”
Slamming Pompeo for his statement isn’t so surprising. Beijing wasn’t going to sit back and allow America’s chief diplomat to make such comments without a response. But two rebukes is significant, showing just how important it is to China that everyone forget the Tiananmen Square massacre and accept the country as it is.
But the episode is also indicative of the mounting tensions between the world’s two most powerful countries — and the brewing cold war that has put the US and China on a collision course.
The Trump administration purposely picked a fight with China
In October, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech that was eerily reminiscent of how US leaders used to speak about the Soviet Union.
Among other indiscretions, he accused China of influencing the 2018 midterm and 2020 presidential elections, stealing US intellectual property, persecuting religious groups, and aggressively patrolling the South China Sea.
The address amounted to the United States naming and shaming China — specifically pitting America against a powerful country like it did during the Cold War.
“This is the Trump administration’s ‘evil empire’ speech,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told me after Pence finished.
That mentality helps explain why President Donald Trump initiated a massive trade war with China that has impacted hundreds of industries and hurt the global economy. It’s why the Pentagon now firmly pushes back on attempts by China to overpower other countries in nearby waters. And it’s why Pompeo is free to make a statement that signals to Beijing that the US wants it to become a lot more democratic — or else.
It’s a radical change from the past. Engagement with China, meaning consistent and significant dialogue on areas of mutual interest, had defined Washington-Beijing relations since the Nixon era. The US wanted China to become a “responsible stakeholder,” a wonderfully wonky Washington term that mostly means it hoped Beijing would abide by global, cooperative rules even as it gained immense power.
But Pompeo’s statement makes crystal clear that the Trump administration has chosen a different route, one that pits the US and China against each other in hopes that Beijing buckles under the pressure. If the Chinese response is any guide, it’s clearly unhappy with the new relationship — meaning the already fragile bonds are at risk of breaking for good.