Donald Trump calls Tiananmen protests a 'riot'

Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 9, 2016.
Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Fayetteville, North Carolina on March 9, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

MIAMI (AFP) - US Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump has referred to the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square as a "riot."

The outspoken billionaire made the remark during a televised debate late Thursday when asked about the student-led protests and subsequent government crackdown.

Specifically, CNN moderator Jake Tapper wanted Trump's response to critics who had expressed concern about previous Tiananmen comments Trump reportedly made to Playboy magazine in 1990.

"About China's massacre of pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, you've said: '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.' How do you respond?" Tapper asked.

Trump said the comments didn't mean he had endorsed what happened.

"I was not endorsing it. I said that is a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength," he said.

"And then they kept down the riot. It was a horrible thing. It doesn't mean at all I was endorsing it."

Hundreds - by some estimates more than a thousand - died after the Communist Party sent tanks in June 1989 to crush demonstrations on Tiananmen Square in the Chinese capital, where student-led protesters had staged a peaceful sit-in to demand democratic reforms.

Ohio Governor John Kasich, meanwhile, did not mince words when he weighed in on what had transpired in Tiananmen Square.

"I think that the Chinese government butchered those kids," the fellow White House hopeful said on the debate stage.

"And when that guy stood in front - 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," he added in reference to the famous image of a lone man who confronted a row of tanks.