At a town hall meeting yesterday, President Biden stumbled over a morally confused statement suggesting he is unlikely to take meaningful action concerning human rights in China. This is more significant than the typical gaffes he is known for. To the countless victims of China’s abuses who hope the U.S. will take up their cause, Biden is becoming a great disappointment.
During the town hall, Biden recalled a conversation he had with China’s now-General Secretary Xi Jinping during Obama’s presidency. Explaining Xi’s perspective, Biden said that when China had historically been “victimized by the outer world” it was because it was not unified domestically. So, according to Biden, Xi merely wanted a “united, tightly controlled China.”
American presidents have — for the better — long positioned themselves as leaders of the free world. Biden’s choice to justify the oppressive domestic policies of China’s authoritarian leader undermines this well-established tradition. The 46th U.S. president proceeded to attribute Xi’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims, assault on Hong Kong’s freedom, and aggression against the democratic society of Taiwan to “cultural norms.”
But these Chinese policies are not “cultural norms.” They are tyrannical and oppressive strategies of the Chinese Communist Party.
During his town hall meeting, Biden continued, “I point out to [Xi], 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 Uyghurs 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.”
What exactly that statement means is anyone’s guess. The key takeaway is that Biden admits he must talk about human rights for the sake of the American public, and Xi “gets it.” Yet Chinese leaders should not merely “get” why we make statements about their human rights issues. They should feel pressure brought to bear by U.S. policies designed to push them to improve human rights conditions.
Human rights advocacy is not just for show. The U.S. recently declared China’s abuses against Uyghur Muslims to be genocide. The stakes are high. Now is not the time to make room for misunderstanding or confusion.
When pressed by Anderson Cooper on whether the Chinese government would face repercussions for their human rights abuses, Biden affirmed there would be consequences. Yet, his comments only implied China’s reputation would suffer. He failed to clearly lay out any consequences for the Chinese government’s actions.
Paying public lip service about China’s human rights record is not enough. The U.S. must take meaningful action to hold China accountable.
One way that China can be punished for their human rights issues is by moving the 2022 Winter Olympic Games out of China. Countries that host the Olympics are given an important platform on the world stage. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argues that “[w]e ought not afford China this propaganda victory.” With a year left to change plans, Pompeo called on the International Olympic Committee to find another location for next year’s Winter Games.
This is a point that the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has also raised, encouraging U.S. officials to publicly raise concerns about Beijing hosting the 2022 Olympics. At the very least, U.S. government officials can make a statement by refusing to attend the games if the Chinese government’s crackdown on religious freedom continues. This can be an important first step toward addressing China’s religious freedom violations.
At the end of the day, everyone knows that China’s oppression of ethnic and religious groups is not a “cultural norm.” To say so is simply irresponsible. It is also damaging to the United States’ reputation and harmful to those suffering ongoing persecution who are in need of our help.
Religious freedom is not just an American norm — it is a fundamental right owed to all mankind. The people of China deserve the freedom to practice their religion and express their beliefs, just as we all do. The U.S. must stand firm in pressing the Chinese government to respect that right.