Pompeo hits China over Tiananmen as US faces civil unrest

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department on Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Washington. (Nicholas Kamm/Pool Photo via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday marked this week’s anniversary of China’s deadly 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square — a day after federal forces used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from a park in front of the White House.

Pompeo tweeted criticism of China and Hong Kong for barring a vigil to mark the anniversary before he met privately with a group of Tiananmen Square survivors at the State Department. A senior department official confirmed the meeting took place but could not say how many survivors attended or what was discussed. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.

President Donald Trump has threatened to call in the military to quell violent protests in the United States. Federal forces on Monday aggressively cleared protesters from Lafayette Park outside the White House so Trump could walk to a church and pose with a Bible.

The Trump administration has stepped up its anti-China rhetoric over Beijing’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and its moves to impose greater control over Hong Kong. Trump and Pompeo last week said Hong Kong is no longer autonomous and will be stripped of its preferential trade and commercial status.

Pompeo began the day by firing off a tweet criticizing China for blocking the annual Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong on June 4, the anniversary of the assault on protesters by the People’s Liberation Army. The decision to bar the vigil ostensibly on health grounds due to the COVID-19 pandemic comes just a week after China’s rubber stamp parliament enacted a new security law for the former British colony that many fear will be used to curtail freedoms the territory has enjoyed since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

“It starts; so soon,” Pompeo said in a tweet. “For the first time in 30 years, Hong Kong authorities denied permission to hold the #TiananmenVigil. If there is any doubt about Beijing’s intent, it is to deny Hong Kongers a voice and a choice, making them the same as mainlanders. So much for two systems.”

The Hong Kong vigil draws a huge crowd to an outdoor space every year.

As Pompeo met with the Tiananmen survivors, three State Department officials were playing down the impact of Trump’s decision last week to ban Chinese graduate students and researchers with links to the People’s Liberation Army or other security services from the United States.

The officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under State Department rules, were unable to say or estimate how many people would be affected by the ban, which has drawn strong criticism from Beijing. The officials all said that the number affected would be “very low” and the U.S. would continue to welcome the vast majority of Chinese students who want to study at American universities.

One of the officials said the impact of the ban would be “more of a scalpel than a baseball bat” and stressed that the U.S. recognized the value that Chinese students bring to the United States. The U.S. hosted 133,396 graduate students from China in the 2018-19 academic year, and they made up 36.1% of all international graduate students, according to the Institute of International Education. Only a small fraction would be affected, the officials said.

Earlier Tuesday in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry lashed out at the ban, which Trump announced on Friday and is intended to curb what U.S. officials say is widespread espionage and intellectual property theft by Chinese students and researchers.

“The United States abused the national security concept and introduced measures to restrict visas on unwarranted charges for Chinese students studying in the States,” said ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, “It seriously infringes the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese students studying abroad, completely violates the common aspiration of both the Chinese and American peoples.”

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