The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s sturdy resistance to China is impressive. But difficult choices loom.

President Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday.
President Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News)

Beijing wasted no time in greeting the new U.S. administration with an escalation of China’s high-risk obnoxiousness. On the fourth day of Joe Biden’s presidency, Chinese fighter and bomber aircraft simulated an attack on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier group as it sailed into the South China Sea.

The pugnacious 26th president, for whom the carrier is named, would have applauded several of the 46th president’s initial decisions regarding China. Biden got Beijing’s attention by inviting Taiwan’s representative in Washington to attend the inauguration, the first such invitation since U.S.-China relations were normalized in 1979. And Roosevelt, a naval power enthusiast, would have loved Biden’s sending of the carrier group. Later this year, a British carrier will participate in exercises in the region with the U.S. Navy. Allies matter.

Biden, who has promised “extreme competition” with China, has an appropriate secretary of state. Antony Blinken’s first conversation, by telephone, with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, was so sandpapery that Yang, according to the Chinese foreign ministry, blustered to Blinken, “No one can stop the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Nations prickly about their need for rejuvenation (“Deutschland, erwache!” — “Germany, awake!” — was a Nazi mantra) betray a truculent sense of inferiority. China today has much to feel inferior about.

Blinken’s predecessor as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, formally designated as “genocide” Beijing’s treatment of more than 1 million Uighurs in concentration camps. Pompeo thereby made national policy of a judgment that candidate Biden voiced in August 2020, and that Blinken affirmed during his confirmation hearing.

Blinken’s warning to Yang that Washington would hold Beijing “accountable for its abuses” occurred three days after a harrowing BBC report on gang rapes and torture (including electric prods inserted in vaginas and rectums) of Uighurs in rooms without surveillance cameras, as well as forced sterilizations, forcible implantations of IUDs and denials of food to those who inaccurately memorized passages from books praising President Xi Jinping. China’s Goebbelsesque embassy in Washington says the minds of Uighur women are actually being “emancipated,” that Beijing’s measures are promoting “gender equality and reproductive health,” and are making Uighur women “more confident and independent” and “no longer baby-making machines.”

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The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide says the crime includes inflicting on a group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part” and “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” Signatory nations are committed to imposing “effective penalties.”

These should begin with an immediate announcement of a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, whose current viciousness is comparable to that of Germany at the time of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. And there should be at least public shaming of U.S. corporations that, while ostentatiously woke at home, seem not to think that Uighur lives matter. Let us identify corporations that import goods made with forced Uighur labor or export to China goods (e.g., surveillance technologies) that could facilitate Beijing’s genocide.

Twenty percent of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang, the region of the genocide: How many U.S. clothing brands are using products of forced labor? The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which last year had 87 co-sponsors in the House and 33 in the Senate, would create a statutory presumption that products from Xinjiang are produced by forced labor. Which U.S. corporations will lobby against this bill?

While China screws down the lid of tyranny on Hong Kong — making schools instruments of political indoctrination; removing library books that “endanger national security” — Beijing continues to add to the (at least) 380 Uighur “re-education” camps. If U.S. transactions — diplomatic and commercial — with China are unaffected by the finding of genocide, this will, in the words of Eugene Kontorovich of George Mason University’s Scalia Law School, “make a joke out of genocide.”

Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, said: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” U.S. policy now insists that genocide is happening in a nation tightly woven into the fabric of world commerce. China is crucial to globalization’s supply chains, but these chains are also crucial to China. They can be instruments of political leverage for the United States and other signatories to the aforementioned convention who are committed to take measures to “prevent and to punish” genocide.

Americans’ usual preference regarding foreign policy is to have as little of it as possible. Presidents, however, do not have that luxury. Biden is keeping his promise of sturdy resistance to China. But his difficult choices have just begun.

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Josh Rogin: Biden’s U.N. ambassador nominee to face criticism for past praise of China

John R. Bolton: Trump didn’t think, or act, strategically about China. Biden needs to do both.

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