Thirty years ago the communist government of China cracked down on student democracy protesters who gathered in Tiananmen Square. The number of protesters killed that day is unknown but the subject remains a sore spot for the Chinese government which still censors information about the event. Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo kicked the hornet’s nest by criticizing China and calling for a full accounting of Tiananmen Square. From Voice of America News:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the protesters, hundreds of whom were killed by soldiers and tanks in the June 4, 1989, protest, “served as an inspiration to future generations calling for freedom and democracy around the world, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe in the months that followed.”

He said ‘the events of 30 years ago still stir our conscience.” He called on Beijing “to make a full, public accounting of those killed or missing to give comfort to the many victims of this dark chapter of history. Such a step would begin to demonstrate the Communist Party’s willingness to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

He said that in the three decades since the incident was televised throughout the world, the U.S. had “hoped that China’s integration into the international system would lead to a more open, tolerant society.”

But Pompeo said “those hopes have been dashed. China’s one-party state tolerates no dissent and abuses human rights whenever it serves its interests. Today, Chinese citizens have been subjected to a new wave of abuses, especially in Xinjiang, where the Communist Party leadership is methodically attempting to strangle Uighur culture and stamp out the Islamic faith, including through the detention of more than one million members of Muslim minority groups.”

He’s absolutely right about all of it and I could not be more pleased that his statement connected the anniversary of Tiananmen to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Clearly, China got the message because it issued a statement of its own today. From the BBC:

On Tuesday, in a rare public reference to Tiananmen Square, the Chinese embassy said China had “reached the verdict on the political incident of the late 1980s long ago”.

A spokesman said Mr Pompeo had “used the pretext of human rights” for a statement that “grossly intervenes in China’s internal affairs”.

It added that his remarks were filled with “prejudice and arrogance”.

It also rebutted Mr Pompeo’s comments about human rights in China, saying they were currently in their “best period ever” and that anyone who attempted to “patronise and bully the Chinese people… will only end up in the ash heap of history”.

Kudos to Sec. Pompeo for getting under the skin of the communist regime. He should frame this response and put it on a wall in his office.

Last week, the NY Times published a story about newly revealed documents that show how the Communist Party responded to the Tiananmen protests at the time. Hard-liners pushed out Party leader Zhao Ziyang who wanted to compromise with the students in favor of Deng Xiaoping who ordered the crackdown:

One by one, China’s shaken leaders spoke up, denouncing the student protesters who had occupied Tiananmen Square until the army rolled in. They heaped scorn on Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party leader purged for being soft on the demonstrators, and blamed the upheaval on subversives backed by the United States.

This scene was played out among Chinese Communist Party leaders soon after troops and tanks crushed pro-democracy protests on June 3-4, 1989, according to a collection of previously secret party speeches and statements published Friday in Hong Kong.

“Kill those who should be killed, sentence those who should be sentenced,” Wang Zhen, a veteran Communist with a famously fiery temper, said of the party’s opponents, according to the collection, “The Last Secret: The Final Documents From the June Fourth Crackdown.”…

“Dictatorship has its own tools; it’s not just lip service or something propped up there to admire — it’s there to be used,” said Bo Yibo, another powerful veteran official, in the collection issued by New Century Press, a small publisher that has defied China’s efforts to censor books about that time.

That’s what the protesters were up against 30 years ago and it’s unfortunately still what they are up against today. If anything, China’s one-party surveillance state has become far more restrictive than it was back then thanks to new technology and help from a lot of American companies. It’s hard to see how a state that employees millions of people to monitor what other people are doing could be forced to change. But for now, we can at least remember the students who had the courage to try. Buzzfeed has published a collection of photos that’s worth a look. And here’s the video of the guy known as “tank man” stopping a line of tanks.

Update: CNN tried to do some reporting on Tiananmen Square today from Beijing and was interrupted by plain-clothes security waving at the camera. If you stick around for the end of this clip, there’s also a report on a vigil which took place in Hong Kong: