NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L ast March, I attended a Chinese Trump supporters’ gathering at a karaoke bar in Flushing, N.Y., for a story I was writing. Two participants really grabbed my attention. Before pouring out their admiration for Trump, they revealed their involvement in the Tiananmen democracy movement in China in 1989.
One of them, Cai Guihua, was a leader of the Shanghai workers’ protests back then; the other, Chen Liqun, was a mobilizer of supporters for the movement in Hangzhou. Both paid a high price after the bloodshed on and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4 that year.
Cai was jailed for nearly two years, and Chen fled the authorities and wandered across China for 17 months before things calmed down. Both were involved in the founding of the dissident Democracy Party of China in 1998 and came to the U.S. not long after, amid a brutal crackdown.
Now they are cheering for Trump with the same passion they devoted to China’s democracy movement.
Conservatism has been rising among Chinese immigrants in recent years. The Chinese community in the U.S. is no longer locked into voting Democrat. Still, discovering a whole slew of Trump supporters among Tiananmen-era protesters surprised me.
Wasn’t it the current House speaker Nancy Pelosi who unfurled a banner on Tiananmen Square in 1991 to memorialize the victims? Wasn’t it former president Bill Clinton who negotiated with Beijing to get some of them out of prison and bring them to the U.S.? And all in all, isn’t President Trump undermining the democracy that Chinese dissidents fought for when they were young?
People can of course stray away from their early beliefs when they are older, and they may become more conservative. Immigration may accelerate the process. I was thinking, Could this be just another example of the initial dream getting lost on the way to pursuing it? But further talks with some Tiananmen protesters proved me wrong.
It’s hard to know how many of those involved in the Tiananmen protests who now live in the U.S. are Trump supporters. Cai and Chen acknowledge that they may not represent the majority. Some told me they support Trump but cannot vote for him because they haven’t become U.S. citizens.
Cai, 62, now an acupuncturist in New York, has been voting for Republican presidential candidates since he became a U.S. citizen in 2009. He said that his taxes were often higher under Democratic presidents, and he lost his job during the financial crisis in 2009 when Obama was in the White House. But most important, he blames the Democrats for allowing China’s Communist Party government to become so powerful.
“We’ve been fighting against China’s Communist Party. But the CCP grows ever stronger. We need to reexamine the China policies of the Democratic Party,” Cai said.
In his view, the Democrats rolled over and allowed unfettered globalization so a lot of American investment could pour into China, and this made the U.S. reliant on Chinese sourcing for many products. It all helped turn China into a superpower. President Clinton’s support for granting China permanent most-favored-nation trading status in 2000 was a big accelerant for this, said Cai, who was brought to the U.S. with some other dissidents as a Chinese concession in those trade negotiations.
“I benefited from the bill,” said Cai. “But I don’t judge things on my personal interests. My mission is to fight against the Communist Party.”
The deep anger and resentment directed at the CCP is generating Trump support among the Tiananmen protesters. Many support his trade war against China and his attempts to punish Beijing for concealing information about the coronavirus when it first emerged. They also defend his description of COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus,” saying the moniker is reasonable given the provocative claim by Chinese government spokesperson Zhao Lijian that the American military brought the virus to Wuhan.
“Many American politicians are too close to Beijing. Finally, we got Trump, who is vehemently anti-the Communist Party,” said Chen, 62, who voted for Trump in 2016. She had voting for Obama in 2012, soon after becoming an American citizen. “Trump represents my values better.” She said that she’ll vote for him again this year even though she is living on welfare payments as a disabled person and might typically expect to have more protection from a Democratic president.
Wang Juntao — labeled by Beijing as one of the “black hand” masterminds behind the Tiananmen student movement and sentenced to 13 years in prison — has also been gravitating toward Trump, though he is still not a U.S. citizen and therefore cannot vote. “I wouldn’t have voted for him in 2016, but I would now,” said Wang, who was released and came to the U.S. after pressure on Beijing by the Clinton administration in 1994.
Now 62 and armed with a master’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Columbia, he is still campaigning for democracy in China from his base in New York. He is concerned, though, that some dissidents are relying too much on Trump. “They need a hero to fight against the Communist Party. And they project their hope on Trump. But the American president’s job is not to fight against China,” he said.
He places more of his hope on Mike Pompeo, applauding the secretary of state for being “one of the very few American politicians who can differentiate between China and the Communist Party.” He sees Pompeo as someone who can be a catalyst for the democracy movement in China.
But there is another reason – in addition to opposition to the CCP — that puts even those who say they wouldn’t vote for Trump at ease about the support he gets from fellow Chinese in America.
Wang Dan, one of the main Tiananmen student leaders, was released from prison and exiled to the U.S. in 1998 before former President Clinton’s visit to China that year. Now 50, he said that, if he were a U.S. citizen, he would vote for Democratic candidates because he feels close to the party and supports its values. But he gives Trump a thumbs-up for his trade war against China and his move to pull funding from the World Health Organization for serving China’s interests more than the world’s.
He doesn’t like Trump’s description of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and finds the president’s compliments to China’s President, Xi Jinping, hard to stomach. He also can’t forgive Trump for saying in 2016 that the Tiananmen protests were a “riot” and for telling Playboy in 1990 that the Chinese government’s ability to put down the revolt showed “the power of strength.”
Nonetheless he is confident that Trump cannot harm American democracy. “He doesn’t follow the rules of democracy, especially the rules on freedom of speech,” said Wang, who holds a Ph.D. from Harvard. “But American democracy is protected by the fundamental political system of separation of powers. If you think a president is able to tear a piece off democracy, you lack . . . confidence in democracy.”
This firm faith in the invincibility of democracy — maybe even firmer than that of many native-born Americans at this moment — and their belief in the system are shared across the board among the Tiananmen protesters.
They don’t seem to agree on whether the Communist Party’s throttling of freedom in China will accelerate the country’s journey to democracy or postpone it. But many are still working on China’s democracy movement in exile — Wang Juntao leads the Democracy Party of China in New York, and Wang Dan runs Dialogue China, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that is drawing up a new “blueprint for China’s future.”
The two men, alongside many other Tiananmen leaders in the U.S., haven’t applied for citizenship here, though they’ve long been eligible. “I feel more attached to China than to the U.S.,” Wang Juntao told me. “My dream is to topple the Communist Party and go back to China as a Chinese citizen.”
More than three decades after Tiananmen, these gray-haired protesters are still who they were, with or without Trump.