During Tuesday’s CNN town hall, Joe Biden shockingly defended President Xi Jinping’s policy of persecuting Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Uighurs have been forced into concentration camps, dubbed “Vocational Education and Training Centers” by the Chinese Communist Party. The purported purpose of these camps is to re-educate and deradicalize Chinese Muslims. However, multiple reports from former detainees and one camp guard have alleged that detainees are being tortured, raped, and that women in the camps are being forcibly sterilized. In January, the Trump administration publicly designated this persecution a genocide, however, President Biden has pulled back from this assertion, defending the persecution as a means for Xi Jinping to maintain “a united, tightly controlled China”. Initially, when asked about the Uighurs, Biden said that “We must speak up for human rights, it’s who we are.” But Biden then pivoted saying that, just as an American President must abide by American values, Xi Jinping is simply ruling by accepted Chinese cultural norms. He said: “Culturally, there are different norms that each country, that their leaders are expected to follow”. As such, Biden said: “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”. Only when prompted by the host, Anderson Cooper, did Biden say there would be repercussions for China’s human rights abuses, though he gave no details of what those repercussions would entail. He naively suggested that China would roll back on its abuses because they harm its reputation on the world stage and inhibit China’s goal of becoming “the world leader”.
Such soft and naive rhetoric on China is worrying to hear from the leader of the free world. Unconfirmed reports allege that Joe Biden may have received money from Chinese businesses through his son, Hunter, who was a partner in Bohai Harvest, a Chinese investment firm he founded with a Chinese financier, Jonathan Li. Eighty percent of Bohai Harvest was owned by Chinese state-owned interests. Biden’s soft stance may indicate that he has been compromised. However, it is not unusual for world leaders to be cautious when speaking out against foreign leaders. In the interest of maintaining cordial relations between leaders, rhetoric is often muted, even when sanctions are harsh. Donald Trump publicly spoke glowingly about North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, while continuing to impose harsh economic sanctions on North Korea to inhibit its aggressive development of nuclear weapons and its various human rights abuses. It remains to be seen if Biden’s actions on China will run counter to his rhetoric.