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White House treads carefully as protests unfold in China as US tries to mend relations with Beijing

<i>Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters</i><br/>The Biden White House is choosing its words carefully as protests unfold in China. President Joe Biden here speaks at the White House in Washington
Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
The Biden White House is choosing its words carefully as protests unfold in China. President Joe Biden here speaks at the White House in Washington

By MJ Lee, Phil Mattingly and Natasha Bertrand, CNN

As frustrated demonstrators take to the streets across China to protest the government’s draconian Covid-19 restrictions — prompting rare civil unrest and clashes between the public and officials — the Biden White House is choosing its words carefully and deliberately.

Top US officials who have been closely monitoring the unrest in China have made two things clear in the past few days: that the Biden administration supports any people’s right to peacefully protest and that it simply does not see China’s so-called zero-Covid policy as a sound approach.

But administration officials have been careful not to step beyond the contours of those public comments, carefully stepping around broader questions about the US’s assessment of the situation or its potential future role in supporting the Chinese people’s cries for more freedom.

That sensitivity and caution is in no small part a reflection of the deeply complicated — and tenuous — place that US-Chinese relations currently stand. The two countries’ relationship had reached its lowest point in decades this year, with tensions fueled by the standoff over Taiwan, economic disputes and other areas of disagreements.

A senior US official emphasized to CNN that the White House is being careful not to overstate the nature of the protests, noting that while there have been some calls for Xi Jinping to step down, as of now, most of the protests in the country of over one billion people seem small, localized and aimed more at the narrow goals of ending the Covid lockdowns and securing better working conditions than a loftier push for democracy.

“We have to be very careful of not creating a distorted reality,” the official said.

A historic bilateral meeting between President Joe Biden and Xi earlier this month on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia — the first in-person meeting between the two men since Biden took office — was aimed at marking a starting point of sorts in trying to strengthen those strained relations.

And while that meeting, which spanned more than three hours, hardly resolved some of the longest standing issues between the two superpowers, Biden and top officials made clear afterward that there was general agreement on the importance of keeping lines of communications open between Washington and Beijing — and finding area of common ground.

“It was not an easy meeting,” another senior US official told CNN, “but they both understood that they represent countries with very different views of the world, which need to manage competition responsibly.” Other officials said the US and China relationship at least now had a “floor,” with both countries in relative agreement on issues like climate change and the danger of Russia using a nuclear weapon.

This week, the White House has insisted that the administration intends to continue building on that progress.

“There’s been no change to our desire to continue to see these channels of communication stay open, and we were heartened coming away from the G20 that both leaders were able to agree on getting some of these working-level discussions back open,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in the White House briefing room on Monday.

The first senior US official said that there have been “zero concessions” to China since the Biden-Xi meeting took place, but acknowledged that both countries have backed into their respective corners when it comes to openly hostile rhetoric — a deliberate approach to avoid a continued deterioration in relations.

A separate senior administration official said, however, that, “To us, this is not about the US-China relationship. This is about the fundamental right of peaceful protests and the ability of the protestors to speak for themselves. We are watching this closely.”

Asked by one reporter whether the protests in China may mark a moment for the US to “more forcefully” advocate for freedom and democracy — particularly given how forcefully Biden has spoken out about the important distinction between autocracy and democracy both at home and abroad — Kirby responded: “This is, I think, a moment to reassert what we believe in when it comes to free assembly and peaceful protest.”

“And we’ve done that and will continue to do that,” Kirby continued, “whether it’s people protesting in Iran or China or anywhere else around the world.”

What Kirby didn’t mention was that Biden himself has weighed in much more forcefully on the unfolding protests in Iran — even saying at a campaign event earlier this month: “We’re going to free Iran. They’re going to free themselves pretty soon.”

Officials argued to CNN, however, that in the White House’s view, the protests in Iran and in China are not comparable, at least for now. In Iran, the regime is routinely killing protesters, who themselves are fighting for a largely unified goal: an end to the Islamic Republic, following the deaths of women in the custody of Iran’s so-called “morality police.” Still, White House officials do view the protests in China as remarkable because they are evidence that Beijing’s total information blackout is cracking, a senior official said.

Asked to elaborate on how the US is weighing the protests in China given the context of the tenuous Washington-Beijing relationship — and what role the US believes it might play as people in China call out for more freedom — one senior administration official said it would be best, for now, to leave the answer to that question of: “We are watching this closely.”

Difficulty assessing scope of protests

While Biden administration officials have been closely monitoring the situation on the ground for several days, one US official acknowledged it was still difficult to assess the scope and scale of what was taking place on the ground. The early stage nature of the protests, along with the inherent unpredictability of such events, has played a role into the nature of the response, the official said.

But so, too, has the concern that, shared by several top senior Biden national security team officials, that appearing to lean toward the protesters would actually have the effect of undercutting what’s taking place. The concern that Chinese officials would use any US response as an effort to paint the protests as a malign foreign effort to undermine China has been a closely considered factor, a senior administration official said.

White House officials have kept explicit and intentional distance from the more fiery calls from protesters related to Xi and the communist party. There is no plan to shift that position, part of an implicit acknowledgment of a reality that carries bilateral and geopolitical consequences of enormous significance.

Still, the White House has continued to monitor events closely — and Biden has been kept regularly updated — as US officials attempt to assess how the protests will progress and, perhaps more importantly, how Chinese officials will respond should the effort grow in size and intensity.

US officials have declined to weigh in on what actions, if any, would be taken if a particularly harsh crackdown comes in the days or weeks ahead. “We’re not doing hypotheticals right now,” one official said. “We’re watching closely and just don’t have anything more than that.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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