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The Trouble with Biden’s Answer on China

The president's town hall remarks were taken out of context, but still leave a lot to be desired.
February 20, 2021
The Trouble with Biden’s Answer on China
US President Joe Biden participates in a CNN town hall at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 16, 2021. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

After President Biden’s CNN Town Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wednesday night right-wing Twitter was in a righteous outrage: the President, it was alleged, had handwaved the horrific persecution of the Uighur Muslims as merely a question of difference in “cultural norms”. Steve Guest, Special Advisor for Communications for Sen. Ted Cruz, was the first to sound the clarion call:

Notorious keyboard warrior and veteran conspiracy monger Jack Posobiec chimed in with a string of tweets accusing Biden of recycling Chinese Communist Party “talking points” and “propaganda,” including the claim that Beijing’s brutal policies were intended to unify the country to keep it from being victimized by the West. Others picked up, including Scott Adams, who wrote that the video clip posted by Guest “removes all doubt” that “China owns Biden” and suggested the modest remedy of removal via the 25th Amendment. Fox News host Laura Ingraham joined in a full day later, retweeting the same clip with the comment that “Biden describes China’s crushing dissent in Hong Kong and Imprisoning Uigher (sic) Muslims as just ‘different norms.’” 

Needless to say, the one-minute clip was taken out of context. But perhaps the oddest thing is that even that clip, watched in its entirety, makes it clear that Biden said nothing of the kind.

You can watch the full exchange for yourself here: 

Here is the full text of the clip in which Biden discusses his telephone conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping. 

You know, Chinese leaders, if you know anything about Chinese history, it has always been the time China when has been victimized by the outer world is when they haven’t been unified at home.

So, the central—to vastly overstate it, the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China. And he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that. I point out to him, no American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States. And so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uighurs in western mountains of China, and Taiwan, trying to end the One-China policy by making it forceful, I said… by the [way], he said he gets it. Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.

It’s pretty clear that (1) Biden is not excusing China’s human rights abuses on the basis of the need to keep the country united, he’s saying that this is Xi’s rationale for his repressive policies; (2) his comment about “different norms” refers to the norm that requires him, as the American President, to speak out for human rights.

This is even clearer if one watches the entire three-minute segment about China, in which Biden responds to Anderson Cooper’s question about the Uighurs and other human rights abuses with, “We must speak up for human rights. It’s who we are.” At the end of the segment, Cooper pressed again:

COOPER: When you talk to him, though, about human rights abuses, is that just—is that as far as it goes in terms of the U.S.? Or is (sic) there any actual repercussions for China?

BIDEN: Well, there will be repercussions for China. And he knows that.

What I’m doing is making clear that we, in fact, are going to continue to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the U.N. and other agencies that have an impact on their attitude. 

China is trying very hard to become the world leader and to get that moniker. And to be able to do that, they have to gain the confidence of other countries. 

And as long as they’re engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it’s going to be hard for them to do that. 

Biden’s comments are certainly not above reproach. While his words about “different norms” were blatantly taken out of context, they still lend themselves to the relativist notion that the difference between totalitarian dictatorship and liberal democracy is merely a culture gap rather than a question of right and wrong. 

The strongest argument against Biden’s statement is that his mention of “repercussions” was so vague as to be meaningless and that expecting human rights lectures at the United Nations to have “an impact” on Beijing’s “attitude” is, to put it charitably, naïve. And there is a lot to unpack in Biden’s concluding remarks on the subject, where he seems to casually acknowledge that China is trying to become “the world leader” and to accept it as a valid goal—but one China cannot achieve without respecting human rights. (Empirically, that’s a questionable proposition.) If Biden’s point is that we should use Beijing’s quest for world leadership as leverage to coax the CCP into liberalizing, good luck with that. 

Of course, it’s worth noting that no one has come up with a good plan for how to stop China from trampling on Hong Kong or abusing the Uighurs. The human rights hand wringing is especially comical coming from ardent fans of a certain ex-President—the guy who, just six months ago, told Axios that back in 2018 he rejected a Treasury Department plan to sanction Chinese officials linked to repressions against the Uighurs and other Chinese Muslims because “we were in the middle of a major trade deal.” 

Around the same time, that same ex-President’s former national security advisor, John R. Bolton, published a memoir that offered a rather juicy account of his former boss’s comments on the subject of China and human rights:

[B]y early June 2019, massive protests were underway in Hong Kong.

I first heard Trump react on June 12, upon hearing that some 1.5 million people had been at Sunday’s demonstrations. “That’s a big deal,” he said. But he immediately added, “I don’t want to get involved,” and, “We have human-rights problems too.”

I hoped Trump would see these Hong Kong developments as giving him leverage over China. I should have known better. That same month, on the 30th anniversary of China’s massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, Trump refused to issue a White House statement. “That was 15 years ago,” he said, inaccurately. “Who cares about it? I’m trying to make a deal. I don’t want anything.” …

Beijing’s repression of its Uighur citizens also proceeded apace. Trump asked me at the 2018 White House Christmas dinner why we were considering sanctioning China over its treatment of the Uighurs…

At the opening dinner of the Osaka G-20 meeting in June 2019, with only interpreters present, Xi had explained to Trump why he was basically building concentration camps in Xinjiang. According to our interpreter, Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do. The National Security Council’s top Asia staffer, Matthew Pottinger, told me that Trump said something very similar during his November 2017 trip to China.

None of that sounds particularly out of character for Donald Trump, who infamously praised the Tiananmen Square massacre as a show of “strength” back in 1990. 

In other words, if you’re a member of the Trump fan club, you should probably sit down and shut up on the subject of China and human rights. 

Needless to say, that’s not what the Trump fan club did on Twitter. Even when I tweeted to clarify the context, there were numerous responses along the lines of either “I don’t see how what Steve Guest said was inaccurate” or “okay, he didn’t say what Steve Guest claimed he said, but what he actually said was still bad.” Still, others weighed in to blame Biden’s incoherence.

The right-wing media sphere did its own share of gaslighting. (I dislike the way the term is often abused to mean “question my version of the facts,” but in this instance, it fits.) A Fox News article, partly based on an Associated Press report, accurately summarized Biden’s remarks, but with a headline that focused on the backlash over “different norms.” The New York Post ran a disoriented story that accurately quoted most of Biden’s comments—under the headline, “Biden dismisses Uighur genocide as part of China’s ‘different norms’” and with an opening paragraph that repeated this claim.

In other words, we’ll be hearing about the time Biden dismissed Beijing’s persecution of the Uighurs as just part of their culture for years to come.

Was there ground to criticize Biden’s comments and his China policy? Of course. But why bother when it’s much easier to make things up?

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.