Two US Republican presidential candidates have been locked in a debate over the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, with Donald Trump calling the event a “riot” which was put down by a “strong powerful government”.

During a CNN Republican debate on Thursday evening, the interviewer referred to comments Trump had made in the past on the Tiananmen Massacre. In 1990, Trump had said in an interview with Playboy Magazine: “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.”

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Trump, however, denied that his statements meant he agreed with the acts. “That doesn’t mean I was endorsing that… I said, that is a strong powerful government that put it down,” he said.

“They kept down the riot, it was a horrible thing,” he added.

When asked whether it meant that he was complimenting the Chinese leaders and Putin despite the atrocities they committed, Trump replied, “Strong doesn’t mean good.”

However, Republican candidate and Ohio Governor John Kasich jumped to the students’ defence, saying, “The Chinese government butchered those kids… And when that young man stood in front of that tank — we ought to build a statue of him over here when he faced down the Chinese government,” Time Magazine reported.

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The Tiananmen events of 1989, also known as the June Fourth Incident, occurred at the end of student-led protests triggered by the death of former Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, who had been purged due to his liberal, reform-minded political stance.

The demonstrations were suppressed when the government sent troops and tanks into the city, killing and injuring many of the protesters. To this day, the PRC government has not apologised for its actions and terms relating to the massacre are heavily censored online.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.