Biden Jabs Xi Over Rights

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Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping officially began his visit to the U.S. Tuesday, and was met with some robust criticism from Barack Obama and especially U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

As I mentioned during Obama’s State of the Union, “fairness” was a common thread on the economy, including concerning trade with China. That was no different earlier today as Obama said the U.S. welcomes China’s peaceful rise, but that it also expects it to play a responsible – and fair – role commensurate with its growing status.

“And so we want to work with China to make sure that everybody is working by the same rules of the road when it comes to the world economic system, and that includes ensuring that there is a balanced trade flow between not only the United States and China, but around world,” he said.

But it was Biden that had the most robust criticism for Xi, especially on human rights. I’ll quote at some length, because Biden’s criticism marks an interesting departure in U.S. tone compared with when Obama first came to office – a tone that saw him take significant flak for being soft on China, especially on human rights.

Noting that few other countries have come so far and so fast as China, Biden first picked up on the fairness theme.

“As Americans, we welcome competition. It’s part of our DNA and it propels our citizens to rise to the challenge,” Biden said. “But cooperation, as you and I have spoken about, can only be mutually beneficial if the game is fair.  That’s why the meetings we’ve had this morning were essentially a continuation of the multiple meetings we had in your country in August, and we spent a great deal of time discussing the areas of our greatest concern, including the need to rebalance the global economy, to protect intellectual property rights and trade secrets, to address China’s undervalued exchange rate, to level the competitive playing field and to prevent the forced transfer of technology, and to continue a constructive dialogue on policies that would benefit our citizens and the world.”

Biden went on, rightly, to take China to task for its decision to vote against a U.N. resolution condemning the Assad regime for the “unconscionable violence” it is perpetrating against its own citizens in Syria, before tackling China’s treatment of its own citizens.

“[We] see our advocacy for human rights as a fundamental aspect of our foreign policy and we believe a key to the prosperity and stability of all societies.  We have been clear about our concern over the areas in which from our perspective conditions in China have deteriorated and about the plight of several very prominent individuals.”

But while Biden offered specific points of contention, Xi’s defense, perhaps unsurprisingly, relied on somewhat vague generalities and pledges to do better – but in China’s own time.

“I stressed that China has made tremendous and well-recognized achievements in the field of human rights over the past 30 plus years since reform and opening up,” Xi said of his discussions with Obama and Biden. “Of course, there is always room for improvement when it comes to human rights. “Given China’s huge population, considerable regional diversity, and uneven development, we’re still faced with many challenges in improving people’s livelihood and advancing human rights.”

Despite his government’s intensified crackdown on dissidents, including the detention of high-profile activists like artist Ai Weiwei, Xi insisted the Chinese government “will always put people’s interests first and take seriously people’s aspirations and demands.  We will, in the light of China’s national conditions, continue to take concrete and effective policies and measures to promote social fairness, justice and harmony, and push forward China’s course of human rights.”

Xi added that China is ready to conduct candid and constructive dialogue and exchanges on human rights with the U.S. and other countries on the basis of equality and “mutual respect.” In diplomatic parlance “mutual respect” means “respecting our right to do as we please.” Still, it was worth raising the issue in such a robust way.

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