Administration

Biden treads lightly in response to COVID protests in China

In this photo taken on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022, policemen pin down and arrest a protester during a protest on a street in Shanghai, China. Authorities eased anti-virus rules in scattered areas but affirmed China’s severe “zero- COVID” strategy Monday after crowds demanded President Xi Jinping resign during protests against controls that confine millions of people to their homes. (AP Photo)

Correction: An earlier version of this report mischaracterized Biden administration officials’ criticism of China’s “zero-COVID” policy.

President Biden is closely watching rare protests across China, but the White House has been cautious about expressing support for those speaking out against the Chinese government, which has moved quickly to stifle dissent. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday that “we’ve been very clear people have a right to protest without fear,” but would not comment on any efforts by the U.S. to support or help Chinese citizens protesting against COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Other Biden administration officials have addressed criticism of Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy that has sparked the outrage. 

“So we’ve said … a lockdown is not a policy that we support here,” national security spokesperson John Kirby told reporters this week. “But, obviously, there are people in China that have concerns about that. And they’re protesting that, and we believe they should be able to do that peacefully.” 

The protests come as Biden is seeking to stabilize relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with the two leaders meeting face-to-face for the first time earlier this month to calm unprecedented tensions, and as the administration has identified the Chinese Communist Party as the greatest strategic challenge facing the U.S.

Statements of support for the protesters also risk playing into a narrative that foreign influences are stoking the protests.  

Allegations and insinuations of U.S. or foreign interference fomenting the protests have spread among “public propagandists,” said Matt Schrader, an adviser on China at the International Republican Institute and who spent 10 years living in Beijing. Chinese officials have yet to directly accuse protesters of colluding with foreign forces. 

“That’s item number one in the playbook for the party on these sorts of things,” Schrader said, “is to blame outside agitators as a way of discrediting the grievances of the protesters and discounting the notion that the protests have anything to do with dissatisfaction with its rule.”

The protests — breaking out in scattered pockets nationwide — erupted over the weekend in opposition to Beijing’s strict lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the demonstrations have, at times, reportedly broken out in calls for democracy and against the censorship of the Chinese Communist Party and the rule of Xi. 

Chinese authorities have responded swiftly and at times violently to suppress gatherings that outside observers estimate have amounted to a few hundred people. 

“I don’t think the regime’s in any real danger from this,” Schrader said. “That’s really a testament to how hardened the regime is against this kind of stuff, that, basically the first major wave of nationwide protests that we’ve seen in the past decade are not that big and are not that much of a threat to regime security.” 

Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, told CNN on Tuesday that members of Congress have more freedom in speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of protesters than the Biden administration, saying “we don’t want to feed the propaganda machinery.” 

“If they’re [Chinese authorities] able to portray this as kind of an anti-Chinese or Western plot, that undermines the very protesters that were trying to stand with,” he said.  

Warner added that Biden’s meeting with Xi was an effort to “lower some of the tensions, we don’t want an active conflict to erupt.” 

White House officials stressed the Biden-Xi meeting was necessary to lay out red lines in the relationship — to avoid conflict and confrontation largely related to Taiwan’s security and Beijing’s support for Russia despite its war in Ukraine — and reestablish channels of communication on a range of priorities. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit China, although American and Chinese officials have not proposed a date.

Blinken, attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Romania on Tuesday, said the U.S. supports the rights of protesters anywhere in the world. 

“When it comes to the protests — protests that we’re seeing in China, protests that we’re seeing for different reasons in Iran, in other places — our position is the same everywhere, which is that we support the right of people everywhere to peacefully protest, to make known their views, their concerns, and their frustrations,” the secretary said, referring to anti-government protests that have rocked Iran for more than two-months.

Craig Singleton, senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said criticism from members of Congress against the Biden administration for a slow response to the protests in Iran likely motivated their quick action to issue a statement in support of the protesters in China.

He added that the “White House’s public response could evolve should these protests continue and particularly if this movement gains steam.”

“The protests, should they continue, and that is a big if, are almost certainly not enough to topple Xi’s government but they may prove enough to topple China’s zero-COVID policies, at least in their current form,” Singleton said.  

Xi’s zero-COVID policy, which has instituted strict lockdowns that have at times shut down whole cities and industries, have impacted the lives of Chinese citizens directly, harmed China’s economy and raised concerns for global supply chains

“Zero-COVID policies have decimated demand for retail goods, entertainment, and travel; weakened business investment; worsened a troubling property crisis; and caused many foreign investors to reconsider their commitment to China,” Jeremy Mark, a nonresident senior fellow at the GeoEconomics Center wrote in a brief for the Atlantic Council. 

“Youth unemployment in the cities is creeping up toward 20 percent, adding to the anger in the streets.” 

Biden and Xi spoke about COVID-19 generally and its impacts around the world during their meeting, a national security spokesperson told The Hill on Tuesday. 

“The President did discuss our approach to the pandemic which is focused on what works like encouraging Americans to get their safe, effective updated vaccines and making testing and treatment easily accessible,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve been clear that zero COVID is going to be very difficult to sustain.”

The spokesperson added that Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns and other American officials at the mission in Beijing regularly raise concerns about the impact of the zero-COVID policy on Americans living in China with senior Chinese officials “and will continue to do so.”

Outside observers and analysts are categorizing the outbreak of protests as an unprecedented rebuke of Xi’s rule, after he secured in October an unprecedented third, five-year term as the country’s leader.

“I think it’s clear that the scale of the protests, and also much of their content, is at a much larger scale than anything we’ve seen since the events leading up to the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

The Tiananmen Square protests are held up as the most significant opposition movement in the history of the Chinese Communist Party, with an estimated 1 million pro-democracy protesters at the height of the weeks-long protests. The Chinese government responded with live fire on protesters, resulting in deaths estimated to be between hundreds and thousands.  

Stokes points out that the new generation of protesters, and many of the demonstrations organized by university students, are far enough removed from the brutal crackdown of Tiananmen that they are emboldened to state public protests. 

But Xi also has a stronger grip on power compared to the outright conflict among party leaders in 1989, and the regime has a long, practiced hand at responding to and stamping out dissent. 

Tactics so far deployed include reports of quickly wiping social media clean of any reference to protests, sending university students home in an apparent tool to disperse gatherings, and instances of violence and intimidation against those seen protesting.  

“China has the most sophisticated surveillance and repression apparatus, perhaps in the world, and their playbook for repression is pretty well developed,” Stokes said. 

–Updated on Nov. 30 at 6:22 a.m.

Tags Biden China COVID protests Joe Biden John Kirby Karine Jean-Pierre Mark Warner Xi Jinping Xi Jinping zero COVID policy
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