White House

Biden’s Confusion on How to Talk about Genocide

President Biden speaks in the State Dining Room in Washington, D.C., January 22, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
A flubbed answer on Communist China’s concentration camps exposes the flaw in Biden’s calls for cooperation with the regime. 

When it comes to China’s genocide of the Uyghur people, Biden has some trouble getting his point across.

The president was in Milwaukee last night answering questions during a televised town-hall event, when the host, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, asked if Biden spoke about China’s human rights violations during his call last week with Xi Jinping. What followed was a mess of an answer about Xi’s brutal Uyghur crackdown. During a winding explanation of how the Chinese leadership views the world, Biden said “Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.”

Many interpreted this as some kind of justification for the Chinese Communist Party’s drive to wipe out Turkic minorities in Xinjiang. If that were true, the president’s comment would fly in the face of what he has previously said about the plight of the Uyghur people. In fact, Biden, who as early as August called the Xinjiang crisis a genocide, ultimately told Cooper, “there will be repercussions. And [Xi] knows that.” Although it’s possible that his cultural-norm comments were some ham-fisted attempt at shielding Xi from criticism, it’s more likely that the president had his foot in his mouth as he attempted to explain his obligation to speak out about human-rights abuses.

Still, the incident sheds light on the Biden administration’s broader confusion when it comes to confronting Xi. If the president believes that the CCP is perpetrating a genocide (White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently confirmed that he does), he should lead with a clear condemnation of the Chinese regime’s mass atrocities, not a recounting of the time he spent getting to know the man responsible for 21st-century concentration camps as he did last night. He should be making the case for his conclusions about this barbarity, and that understanding of the regime’s conduct should play a role in every decision he makes with regard to China policy.

The new team has taken drastic steps to put human rights first in foreign-policy decision making. In the Gulf, this has translated to a freeze on arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia out of concern that these weapons will be used to target civilians in Yemen. The State Department has signaled its desire to build an international partnership to address the military coup in Burma — Biden even gave a brief podium statement announcing sanctions on the official responsible. No one can accuse the Biden administration of shying away from bold pronouncements about human-rights abuses.

This human-rights-oriented approach has also guided its engagement with China. Both Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised Beijing’s severe human-rights abuses during their calls with their Chinese counterparts, and both consistently raise these concerns in their public speeches. On several occasions, Blinken has confirmed that he agrees with his predecessor’s finding that Beijing is carrying out crimes against humanity and genocide against the Uyghurs. The administration has also been clear that the U.S. is in competition with China, even “extreme competition,” as Biden recently put it.

But these officials apparently have trouble answering the question that logically flows from their condemnations: Can the United States seek any form of engagement with a regime carrying out forced sterilizations, systematic rape, and other unspeakable horrors?

Blinken thinks that the U.S. can deal with such a regime, even as it carries out an extermination of one of the ethnic minority groups under its control. He told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly yesterday, “This has been a challenge for American administrations going back decades and decades, and we have to be able to find ways to do both.” Kelly then asked if the U.S. should boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Blinken emphasized the need to prevent the importation of goods produced by the Xinjiang forced-labor system. “But we have to be able to do multiple things at the same time,” he said, pointing to Russia to show that Washington can cut deals with the regime it simultaneously condemns, and apparently echoing Biden’s recent pledge to “work with Beijing, when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”

Vladimir Putin has relentlessly targeted his political opponents with arbitrary detention and assassination. But the Chinese campaign to wipe out the Uyghurs amounts to an international emergency of a different category and a far larger scope.  Despite the clear evidence, such as harrowing victim testimonies, that these crimes are in fact taking place, Beijing has recruited dozens of countries to endorse its actions as a benign counterterrorism campaign and executed a global disinformation campaign to dispute the allegations that it faces. The Chinese leadership’s grip on Xinjiang demonstrates a technological sophistication and a diplomatic savvy that has so far shielded it from facing international pushback.

Can the United States “do multiple things at the same time” when it comes to the Chinese party-state’s mass atrocities? Not if its priority is to turn Beijing into an international pariah, rather than a champion of multilateral action on climate change and global public health.

The Biden administration pledged to turbocharge the international response to the Uyghur crisis in a way that the previous one, due to its constant needling of U.S. allies, couldn’t. But Biden and Blinken can’t claim to do that if their rhetoric about cooperation with the world’s most influential perpetrator of genocide doesn’t match the urgency with which they must act, and if Biden keeps flubbing questions with such clear answers.


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