The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump just called Tiananmen Square a ‘riot.’ The Communist Party will be pleased.

In Thursday night's GOP debate, Donald Trump called the protests in Tiananmen Square a "riot."

The comment was made in response to a question about his views on the 1989 student protests and the bloody crackdown that followed. Here is the exchange:

TAPPER: Mr. Trump, some of your Republican critics have expressed concern about comments you have made praising authoritarian dictators. You have said positive things about Putin as a leader, and about China's massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, you've said: "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."
How do you respond?
TRUMP: 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.

The comment the moderator references comes from a 1990 interview with Playboy. The quote has been cited by some as an endorsement of the Chinese government's handling of the mass, student-led mobilization, that is, as praise for the way the People's Liberation Army "cleared" the Square on the morning of June 4th, 1989, leaving hundreds, if not thousands, dead.

Trump says twice that his comment was not an endorsement. He also calls what happened in the square a "horrible" thing. But he did not step away from the heart of his initial claim — the notion that the Chinese government exhibited "strength" by clearing the square using tanks and guns. Nor did he elaborate on why he chose to call what happened in the square that night a "riot." By independent accounts, it was not.

In the years since the killings, China's ruling Communist Party has gone to extreme lengths to stop discussion about what happened that night. The word "Tiananmen" is censored online and stricken from many histories. When the incident is discussed, the official line — which is contested by scholars and conflicts with witness testimony — is that the protest was in fact a "riot" (or "anti-revolutionary riot") and the People's Liberation Army stepped in to keep the city safe.

By using that language, Trump is lending credence to the Party's narrative about the men and women killed and injured that night — a point Ohio Gov. John Kasich quickly made.

Referencing the iconic "tank man" photo, he blasted Trump's version of events. "The Chinese government butchered those kids,” he said.

Liu Liu reported from Beijing.

Read more:

A look inside the Tiananmen Square crackdown

Here's how the Post covered Tiananmen in 1989

Remembering the Tiananmen Square Massacre