The ongoing fade-out of public information coincided with the 30th anniversary this month of the bloodshed of the Tiananmen Square protests, a free-speech demonstration that the Communist Party crushed with military force as the world watched in horror.
Meanwhile, in Washington, President Trump had a message: The Post, CNN and NBC were, he wrote on Twitter, “Fake and Corrupt News Media.” The New York Times and CNN are “truly The Enemy of the People!” MSNBC, which he called “the opposition,” was broadcasting “such lies, almost everything they were saying was the opposite of the truth.”
“I know it is not at all ‘Presidential’ to hit back at the Corrupt Media, or people who work for the Corrupt Media, when they make false statements about me or the Trump Administration,” Trump declared in another tweet. “Problem is, if you don’t hit back, people believe the Fake News is true. So we’ll hit back!”
Trump’s tweetstorm against the press corps over the past three days, apparently sparked by his belief that he was not getting enough credit for an immigration deal with Mexico, was nothing new. The incendiary words were so routine that the president, after discounting a Times story on the deal as “false,” took his motorcade to Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., for five hours of rest and relaxation.
But the president’s hostility toward the press in the United States again stood as a striking companion to the antagonism that authoritarian regimes display toward the free flow of information. Trump’s tweets came as an estimated 1 million people in Hong Kong took to the streets to protest a new extradition law announced by the Communist Party, fearing further erosion of the one-country, two-systems autonomy that has existed since the British returned control of the island to Beijing in 1997.
“The fact that the president is willing to attack the media so explicitly and so directly makes it harder to point out and to stand up for those attacks in other parts of the world, including China,” said Jeffrey Prescott, executive director of National Security Action, a think tank formed by former Obama administration officials to counter Trump’s foreign policy.
White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The president’s silence on China’s abuse of free speech and human rights follows his relatively weak reactions to other abuses around the world, including the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia. Trump said in February that he believed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claim that he did not have prior knowledge of the mistreatment of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died days after being released, in a coma, from 17 months in captivity in 2017.
Trump also has not spoken publicly about the ethnic violence against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or the mass incarceration of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps” in China — leaving the job of publicly condemning those actions to his subordinates, including Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Last month, when two Reuters journalists were released after more than 500 days in government confinement in Myanmar over their reporting of the killing of the Rohingya, Pence and Pompeo hailed the news. A White House spokeswoman also released a statement. But Trump said not a word. The two journalists, who had been named with other journalists as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” in 2018, received the Pulitzer Prize for their work last month in New York.
The twin spectacles of Beijing clamping down on free speech and Trump ratcheting up his attacks on news organizations comes amid a growing trade war between the United States and China.
While the White House has sought to force Beijing to commit to new measures aimed at preventing theft of American trade secrets, the president has failed to go to bat for the Western media companies that are unable to do business in China.
Trump has given the signal to hawkish aides, including Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, to get tougher with Beijing, noted Daniel Russel, who served as a high-ranking Asia policy official in the Obama administration.
“But there’s no reason to believe that’s reflective of what President Trump believes in, and we’ve seen in the past when deals could be made that suit Trump’s purpose, including with respect to the most egregious human rights violator, Kim Jong Un, Trump does not hesitate to undercut his own advisers,” said Russel, now a vice president at the Asia Society. After trade talks with China collapsed last month, word spread through Washington that the Trump administration was preparing to hit Beijing with new economic sanctions over its mistreatment of the Uighurs — a strategy that had reportedly been on hold.
As part of the rollout, Pence was said to be preparing a major human rights speech pegged to the June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But that day came and went with Pence saying nothing about the Uighurs.
As for Trump, he didn’t completely ignore the First Amendment over the weekend. Wading into the debate over social media companies policing their sites for abusive behavior, the president took a stand.
“Twitter should let the banned Conservative Voices back onto their platform, without restriction,” he wrote in a tweet Sunday morning. “It’s called Freedom of Speech, remember. You are making a Giant Mistake!”