In a CNN town hall Tuesday, Biden stumbled through a recounting of his two-hour Feb. 10 phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, during which the two leaders discussed the issue of China’s human rights violations against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. Biden said that, historically, China has been victimized by foreign powers when it is not unified and explained that this is Xi’s rationale for exerting tight control over his people.
“Culturally, there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow,” Biden said, a line that was quickly criticized by several GOP lawmakers and pundits. He also said that the United States will reassert its role as a champion of human rights and that China will face consequences for the atrocities, but those lines got less coverage and attention.
“But it’s much more complicated,” Biden said in the town hall. “I shouldn’t try to talk China policy in 10 minutes on television.”
If only Biden had taken his own advice. On Thursday, McMaster criticized Biden’s comments on the Uighurs while virtually addressing a meeting of the Republican Study Committee, a group of about 150 conservative GOP lawmakers led by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). A few reporters were invited to join the virtual meeting. McMaster’s comments were on the record.
“President Biden on the town hall, I mean he made a big mistake,” McMaster said. “He’s like, ‘Well, they have different cultural norms.’ You could call that bigotry masquerading as cultural sensitivity.”
The Trump administration’s State Department declared on its very last full day that the Chinese government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang through a mix of mass internment, mass forced labor, forced sterilization and other measures to intentionally extinguish their culture and identity from the face of the earth.
Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, testified during his January Senate confirmation hearing that he agrees Beijing’s atrocities amount to a genocide, but the Biden administration has not made this official determination yet, pending an internal review. During the campaign, the Biden team debated and decided to call the atrocities a genocide even before the Trump administration made that determination.
In his RSC event, McMaster said the United States had for decades engaged in “strategic narcissism” toward China, adding that U.S. leaders in government and business had been compromised and tricked into helping the Chinese Communist Party’s strategy out of greed or ignorance.
“They have these useful idiots here in the United States … who just parrot their perspective, that ‘poor China,’ that we are trying to keep China down,” McMaster said. “No, we are defending ourselves from Chinese Communist Party aggression.”
McMaster was there to promote his book, “Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World,” which came out last fall. Referring to its thesis, he said the United States was wrong to assume after the end of the Cold War that the era of great-power competition was over and that China would liberalize both economically and politically as it rose.
“This was obviously not the case much earlier than 2017, but we clung to that assumption,” McMaster said, praising the Trump administration’s turn toward a more competitive China approach. “I think the greatest threat that we are encountering to our future is from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Xi is driven by “fear of losing control” and an ambition to promote China’s authoritarian, mercantilist model at the expense of the free world, McMaster said. Beijing’s strategy uses a mix of co-optation, coercion and concealment to get Western nations and leaders to support the Chinese Communist Party’s goals or at least stop criticizing them. He labeled the Chinese state-driven industrial model a “Ponzi scheme.”
McMaster called for a whole-of-society approach to win the grand strategic competition. He cautioned the Biden team not to fall into the trap of making unenforceable deals with Beijing in exchange for the false promise of smooth relations. He said that after the 2022 Winter Olympics, Xi will lose any remaining restraint and China’s behavior will only get worse.
In a conference call Thursday evening to preview Biden’s participation in a virtual meeting of the Group of Seven on Friday, a senior administration official sought to clarify the confusion about Biden’s call with Xi, saying Biden emphasized his long-held commitment to universal values, human rights and the dignity of all people.
“[Biden] was quite direct and candid in speaking with the president of China on the subject of Xinjiang,” the official said.