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Biden silent on growing China protests over extreme human rights abuses, lockdowns

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after his recovery from COVID-19 in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
November 28, 2022

President Joe Biden and members of his administration have yet to directly comment on the protests and riots that have sprung up throughout China in recent days. The protests pose a potential challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s rule at a time when he is seeking to consolidate power for a third presidential term and lead the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to overtake the U.S. as the dominant global power.

Over the weekend, protests spread to cities across China. Many of the Chinese protesters rebuffed the country’s strict “COVID Zero” lockdown policies and some have reportedly called for more respect for freedom and human rights and Xi and other leaders of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to resign.

The protests have sprung up in China after videos have been coming out of the country for months, showing people being locked in quarantine camps. Some of the protests began in China’s western Xinjiang province after a fire broke out at an apartment building, killing 10 residents. Videos posted online have claimed people in the apartment building were unable to escape because Chinese authorities had locked them into their homes as part of their COVID policies.

While videos of the protests and riots in China were shared across social media over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Biden had yet to personally comment on the matter by Monday morning.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the U.S. State Department and national security adviser Jake Sullivan also had not provided a comment on the protests by Monday morning.

Rather than Biden, Blinken and Sullivan making any direct public statements on the issue, the Biden administration had a White House National Security (NSC) spokesperson deliver a comment to members of the press saying the U.S. does not agree with China’s COVID lockdown measures.

“We’ve said that zero COVID is not a policy we’re pursuing here in the United States,” the NSC spokesperson said. “And as we’ve said, we think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero COVID strategy. For us, we are focused on what works and that means using the public health tools like: continuing to enhance vaccination rates, including boosters and making testing and treatment easily accessible. We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC.”

In a White House press briefing later on Monday afternoon, NSC spokesman John Kirby said “our message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent: people should be allowed the right to assemble and peacefully protest.”

When he was asked directly if the Biden administration supports the efforts of Chinese protesters to bring about an end to the country’s strict COVID lockdown measures, Kirby said, “The White House supports the right of peaceful protest.”

Kirby did say Biden is “staying briefed” on the events going on in China.

The Biden administration’s response to the protests in China differs from the response it offered to the death of an Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iranian morality police in September and the protests and riots her death sparked.

On Sept. 16, the same day Amini died, Sullivan tweeted, “We are deeply concerned by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was reportedly beaten in custody by Iran’s morality police. Her death is unforgivable. We will continue to hold Iranian officials accountable for such human right abuses. #MahsaAmini مهسا_امینی#.”

On Sept. 19, Blinken tweeted, “Mahsa Amini should be alive today. Instead, the United States and the Iranian people mourn her. We call on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest. #مهسا_امینی.”

Biden, Sullivan and Blinken have all continued to specifically denounce the Iranian government’s response to the protests on Twitter. And administration officials have continued to condemn the Iranian government’s morality police and their responses to protests in press White House press briefings over the past two months.

Politico reported that the Biden administration has felt a need to be more more cautious with how it weighs in on protests in China compared to those in other countries like Iran. Politico reported protests in China are common but “are often limited in scope and location, and the Chinese Communist Party tends to move quickly to quash anything it perceives as a serious challenge to its authority.”

A U.S. official familiar with the issue, who spoke to Politico on condition of anonymity, said the Biden administration had to consider a variety of factors before weighing in on protests in China. The official said a particularly harsh U.S. condemnation of the Chinese government could lead the Chinese government to blame the protests on U.S. interference rather than any actual internal criticism of their policies.

During the White House press briefing, Kirby said the administration doesn’t know much about the size and scale of the protests going on in China.

The United Nations and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres also did not comment on the protests in China on social media.

On Monday, Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for Guterres told Fox News, “We’ve seen some of the video of demonstrations and our reaction is the same one we have for the world over. Is that we believe in the importance of people’s right to peaceful assembly and association and their right to demonstrate peacefully and urge the authorities to guarantee that right.”