At the first press conference of his presidency Thursday, President Joe Biden was asked by Justin Sink of Bloomberg News about the meeting between Chinese and American diplomats in Alaska last week – which Sink described as “a little theatrical” – and Biden’s position on “continued human rights abuses” in China.
Sink asked if Biden planned to continue tariffs on China, impose import bans, or even “consider cutting off U.S. investment or Chinese access to international payment systems.”
Biden replied those were “each, specifically, legitimate questions, but they only touch a smidgen of what the relationship with China really is about.” He stressed his own positive relationship with the dictator Xi Jinping in his lengthy response, a rhetorical tack Democrats used to criticize President Donald Trump in very strenuous terms for using with autocratic leaders.
“I’ve known Xi Jinping for a long time,” Biden said, referring to the authoritarian ruler of China. “Allegedly, by the time I left office as Vice President, I had spent more time with Xi Jinping than any world leader, because President Obama and the Chinese president Hu decided we should get to know one another, since it is inappropriate for the president of the United States to spend time with the vice president of another country, but it was obvious he was going to become the new leader of China.”
“So I spent hours upon hours with him, alone with my interpreter and his, going into great detail and very, very straightforward,” Biden continued. “Doesn’t have a democratic-with-a-small-d bone in his body, but he’s a smart, smart guy. He’s one of the guys like Putin who thinks autocracy is the wave of the future; democracy can’t function in an ever-complex world.”
Biden went on to describe the two leaders’ phone call:
So when I was elected and he called to congratulate me – I think to the surprise of the China experts who were his people on the call, as well as mine listening, we had a two-hour conversation for two hours. And we made several things clear to one another. I made it clear to him again, and I’ve told him in person on several occasions, that we’re not looking for confrontation, although we know there will be steep, steep competition.
“Two, that we’ll have strong competition, but we’ll insist that China play by the international rules: fair competition, fair practices, fair trade,” Biden went on, switching to a numbered-point format:
Thirdly, we already compete effectively, I indicated, that we’re going to deal with China effectively, and we’re going to need three things to do that. I’m telling our people. First, we’re going to invest in American workers and American science. I said that all through the campaign, I say it again, and I’m setting up my administration to be able to do that. Which is that, you know, back in the Sixties, we used to invest a little over two percent of our entire GDP in pure research and investment in science. Today it’s point-seven percent. I’m going to change that. We’re going to change that.
The future lies in who can, in fact, own the future as it relates to technology, quantum computing, and a whole range of things, including in the medical field. And so, what I’m going to do is make sure that we invest closer to two percent. One of the reasons why I’ve set up the PAB, the President’s board of scientists and what, again is we’re going to invest in medical research – cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, industries of the future, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotech. And we’re going to make real investments. China is out-investing us by a long shot, because their plan is to own that future.
“The second thing to do is, we’re going to re-establish our alliances. I’ve been very clear with him. It’s not anti-Chinese. And we’ve talked about it,” Biden said, digressing to comment on the length of his press conference before saying he planned to follow it by “speaking with 27 heads of state in Europe” to “hold China accountable in the region”:
Because we have to have democracies working together. Before too long, I’m going to have, and invite, an alliance of democracies to come here to the United States to discuss the future. We’re going to make it clear that in order to deal with these things, we are going to hold China accountable to follow the rules, follow the rules – whether it relates to the South China Sea, the North China Sea, an agreement made on Taiwan, or a whole range of other things.
The third thing – and the thing I admire about dealing with Xi is, he understands, he makes no pretense about not understanding what I’m saying, any more than I do him – I pointed out to him no leader could be sustained in his position, or her position, unless they represent the values of their country.
And I said, ‘Mr. President, as I’ve told you before, Americans value the notion of freedom. America values human rights. We don’t always live up to our expectations, but there’s a value system. We are founded on that principle. And as long as you, and your country, continue to blatantly violate human rights, we are going to continue in an unrelenting way to call it to the attention of the world, and make it clear, make it clear what’s happening.’ And he understood that.
There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Xi Jinping or his government “understand” they are intolerably violating human rights in any way. At the meeting in Alaska last week that Sink and Biden alluded to, the Chinese delegation sternly lectured Biden’s team that America has no moral standing to criticize China for human rights violations, throwing the rhetoric of Biden’s own party about America’s inescapable history of racism right back in their faces.
An overwhelmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s shaken response included the concession Biden made in his press conference: China’s critique of America is probably correct, but at least the U.S. is a “confident country” that can “look hard at its own shortcomings and constantly seek to improve,” as Blinken put it, or “we don’t always live up to our expectations,” as Biden said Thursday.
The Biden administration’s rhetoric draws a moral parallel between the United States and China, a country that is running gigantic concentration camps for the Uyghur Muslims where torture and sexual abuse have been reported, forcibly re-educating them to become obedient Communists, using them for forced labor, and attempting to wipe them out altogether with sterilization and ethnic cleansing techniques.
While Biden talks about bringing democracies together for conferences where they can hammer out strongly-worded statements to let Xi know they severely disapprove of how he is treating the Uyghurs, Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, and others, China is using economic blackmail to force foreign corporations to renounce their criticism of its human rights abuses.
“Investing” in research and development will not close the competitive gap if Biden relaxes the Trump administration’s aggressive efforts to root out Chinese intelligence assets and block technology theft.