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Solidarity Now?

Should the White House cheer on China’s protesters?

Demonstrators hold white signs as a form of protest against lockdown restrictions in Beijing. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

Some political choices are easy.

For instance, if a couple of famous antisemites were to drop by unannounced for dinner, any normal human being who leads a major party would turn them away without a second thought.

Easy peasy. It’s our misfortune to live in an era in which, for certain influential figures, even the easy ones are hard.

Some choices are difficult even for the most normal and earnest among us, though. The Dispatch Slack channel has become a running debate this week about the restraint the White House has shown amid a wave of unrest in China. This haunting scene from the city of Urumqi in Xinjiang touched it off.

Per the Washington Post, “Videos shared on Chinese social media platforms showed firetrucks parked at a distance from the building and spraying water that fell short of the flames, leading some to question whether pandemic limitations on movement had prevented the trucks from getting closer or arriving fast enough.” Officially, 10 people died, including multiple children. Unofficially, it’s anyone’s guess. Local authorities claimed the fire department was impeded by parked cars blocking a narrow street, not by COVID restrictions.

A population at wit’s end after three years of capricious lockdowns didn’t buy it. 

There was enough anger in the fire’s aftermath to produce the largest demonstrations since the Tiananmen Square massacre, spread over numerous Chinese cities. Some protests saw chants calling on Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to relinquish power. Others heard people demand freedom of speech and of the press, a reminder that nascent revolutions tend to grow more ambitious as the crowds grow along with them. Reporters based in Asia marveled on social media that they’d never seen anything like it in their years of covering China. Minor labor strikes and small demonstrations against local policy happen from time to time, but national protests against national policy? Unheard of.

Some demonstrators were clever, even sarcastic in their improvised workarounds of Chinese censorship.

One was seen holding a sign that read, “You know what I want to say.” Some held up blank pieces of paper to highlight their inability to speak freely. On Chinese social media, where criticism of the government is suppressed, dissenters mockingly posted positive words like “yes,” “good,” and “correct.”

Experts frequently make the point that the modern CCP and the Chinese people abide by an unspoken social contract. In return for tolerating the party’s totalitarianism, the people get stability and continued economic prosperity. Because of “zero COVID,” that contract has now been broken. The insanity of indefinite stochastic lockdowns means any city or region can be shuttered at a moment’s notice based on a few local infections. That means businesses knocked offline for days or weeks and citizens trapped in their homes without food or medicine—or help from the authorities, perhaps, if a fire should break out.

Sanity should point China toward following the same exit strategy from “zero COVID” as Australia. Import the West’s mRNA vaccines, get most of the public (especially senior citizens) dosed up rapidly, then open up. But Beijing won’t use the mRNA vaccines, not wanting to admit that “zero COVID” has failed and that it was forced in the end to rely on Western technology to protect the population. And the government hasn’t mandated vaccination for elderly Chinese for reasons that escape me. Building immunity as quickly as possible is of the utmost urgency as the country’s social fabric tears; it’s an odd moment for the Chinese Communist Party to suddenly turn libertarian.

The question for American diplomats is what to do, or not to do, about all of this. The people are in the streets; the moment seems ripe for a stirring endorsement of liberty from the White House. Instead, nothing. Or next to nothing.

Is nothing the right move this time?

Team Biden’s reaction to the protests isn’t quite nothing, but it ain’t much more than that.

The word “stirring” doesn’t pop to mind. Reporters followed up Monday with spokesman John Kirby to see if the White House’s enthusiasm for the protests had grown since that initial written statement. Nope. If anything, lukewarm had turned to cool.

What made the ambivalence stranger is that Biden and his aides have been outspoken in support of Iran’s uprising since protests there began several months ago. In September, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was asked why the administration wasn’t taking the same low-key approach to the current protests there that Barack Obama’s administration took to Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009. He replied: “What we learned in the aftermath of that is that you can overthink these things, that the most important thing for the United States to do is to be firm and clear and principled in response to citizens of any country demanding their rights and dignity.”

Chinese citizens are demanding their rights and dignity at this very moment. A dismissive White House has responded by insisting that they speak for themselves. Huh.

Biden has been surprisingly hawkish toward China as president, depriving Republicans of an easy opportunity to call him a lily-livered commie appeaser, but his restraint toward the current protests has finally given them an opening. Tom Cotton was characteristically low key yet stern.

Ted Cruz was characteristically Ted Cruz.

Even Ron DeSantis entered the fray to burnish his brand as the GOP’s foremost opponent of lockdowns and to earn some foreign policy brownie points ahead of 2024.

Republicans would be guilty of political malpractice if they didn’t whack Biden for his reticence. The protesters’ cause is just; the CCP is evil through and through; “zero COVID” is cruel and unworkable long-term. Surely the president sees that. And if he does see it, he should say so.

In theory.

In practice, America’s diplomat-in-chief sometimes has good reason not to speak truths that the opposition party is free to acknowledge openly.

My view of what Biden should do is fatalistic. (Characteristically.) I don’t think what the White House says matters nearly as much internationally as we Americans like to believe. Decades as the world’s preeminent power have led us to overestimate our ability to influence events abroad, sometimes militarily but also rhetorically. We want to believe the leader of the free world finding just the right words to seed liberty abroad will work magic by inspiring the downtrodden masses.

Maybe a strong orator in the right setting at the right moment could move the needle. But ol’ Joe Biden?

Still, I see the arguments for speaking out.

One is moral. To borrow a cliche, the United States is more than a country, it’s an idea. It should stand loudly and proudly for that idea when brave people risk prison or worse for their freedom, particularly at a moment when they’re doing so in so many different countries. You’d have to go very far to the left or very, very far to the right to find an American who doesn’t sympathize with the plight of Chinese protesters. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that the president articulate that sympathy.

Like Sullivan said, don’t overthink it. What’s right is right. To speak truth to authoritarians who insist upon lies is a matter of honor. Silence is complicity.

There’s a strategic argument too. As some of my Dispatch colleagues have pointed out, reminding Beijing that the eyes of the world are upon it might make China’s leaders think twice about getting too dirty. “Some human rights advocates want to see a stronger stance in support of the protests from U.S. officials, also warning that America should be clearer about potential consequences if the Chinese government cracks down on protesters,” Haley Byrd Wilt and Price St. Clair write today at Uphill. Everyone knows from painful experience how these demonstrations could end. Already there are reports of tanks deploying to Chinese cities, just in case.

“Consequences” would involve more than rhetorical paeans to liberty, of course. And China isn’t Russia, easily isolated by the West. If Biden threatened sanctions and the CCP cracked down anyway, he’d have to follow through, adding yet another drag on the global economy. But without so much as a few encouraging words for protesters from the White House, Xi Jinping might conclude that another Tiananmen-style bloodbath would be broadly tolerated, however grudgingly, by the United States and its allies. A man who was just “elected” to a de facto lifetime term as president might in his hubris instinctively favor bold solutions, shall we say, to his problems unless he’s given good reason to think otherwise.

Finally, if the White House has clammed up for fear of playing into the hands of Chinese propagandists, they should consider the possibility that Chinese propagandists will do what they do regardless. Anything Biden says in support of the protests will be used as “proof” by Beijing that the protests were orchestrated by Western intelligence to weaken China. Whereas if Biden says nothing, Chinese media will … still claim that the protests were orchestrated by Western intelligence to weaken China. Nationalist demagogues are going to demagogue nationalistically.

The strategy to discredit the protests is so transparent and so cynical that the protesters themselves are wise to it and are calling it out preemptively.

All in all, Biden endorsing the protests arguably looks like a low-downside, high-upside play. At worst, he’ll be ignored and his words will be used ineffectually by Chinese nationalists. At best, it’ll steer the Chinese away from Tiananmen 2.0, in case that’s the way they’re leaning.

Yet I still lean toward him saying nothing, at least for now.

For starters: It’s true that Chinese propagandists will claim the protests are a Western plot no matter what, but Biden commenting approvingly will make it easier for them. The more video there is of him and his spokesmen egging on the demonstrations in the name of freedom, the more undecided Chinese observers who watch that video may feel their nationalism pricked and turn against the protesters as a result.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear how much staying power the protests have. Per the Associated Press, there was no news of new demonstrations in Beijing, Nanjing, or Shanghai on Tuesday. Perhaps protests were held and the CCP successfully suppressed the coverage, but it may also be that the number of Chinese willing to defy the regime is, and will remain, small. Administration officials “had doubts that the protests that played out on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai over the weekend would be sustained,” the New York Times reported yesterday, “or that the calls for an end to Covid restrictions amounted to a fundamental call for government change.” We all desperately want to believe that a revolution is brewing, a deus ex machina that will end (or at least meaningfully delay) the West’s looming China crisis before it really begins. But there’s no sound reason to think so. 

And it would look faintly ridiculous for Biden to issue a stirring statement of support designed to encourage more protests only to have those protests, which may already be petering out, fall off entirely in the aftermath. So much for inspiring the free world.

Speaking out would make sense for the White House if doing so really did end up scaring Xi away from cracking down harshly, as activists hope. That’s the one substantial benefit that’s plausibly on the table in this debate. But I’m skeptical, even so. The United States has had plenty to say about the persecution of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including Joe Biden himself complaining to Xi about it in a phone call early in his presidency. That hasn’t caused any dramatic policy shifts.

Besides, if civil unrest over “zero COVID” grew to the point that Xi began considering a reprise of Tiananmen Square to end it, I doubt warnings from the White House would tip the balance in his calculus. Biden’s administration has thrown a lot more at Russia than harsh rhetoric yet Putin presses on, probably because he believes his strongman credibility, and therefore his regime’s survival, depends upon not capitulating to Western pressure.

I don’t see why Xi wouldn’t reach the same conclusion if he believed his own grip on power was threatened by protests over COVID restrictions with Biden hooting at him from the sidelines.

All of this is to say that whether or not to endorse the protests is a cost/benefit calculus, and ultimately there isn’t any great benefit to doing so.

Whereas there may be a cost, especially at a moment as sensitive as this one.

The obvious reason the White House is cheerleading the Iran protests and mum on those in China is that there’s little near-term risk of war with Iran and no risk of the United States losing if there were. The same isn’t true of a conflict with China over Taiwan, a scenario that troubles Team Biden enough that officials have reached out diplomatically to Beijing recently in hopes of improving relations. (Not very fruitfully so far.) War with China would be a dreadful prospect under the best of circumstances. But with the U.S. and NATO preoccupied with Russia and starved of weapons as they hand over their stockpiles to Ukrainian forces, it’s all but unthinkable.

In fact, Team Biden has spent months lobbying Xi and his flunkies to use their leverage over Putin to pressure Russia into ending the war. They haven’t been very cooperative, but imagine how much less cooperative they’ll be if the president takes to egging on demonstrators who’ve been demanding that Xi quit.

More dangerous is the fact that, if the protests do get traction, they might spook Beijing into doing something rash internationally. One might assume that domestic trouble in China would lead the regime to look inward and forget Taiwan for a while. I think the opposite is true—the more desperate the CCP gets to tighten its hold on power, the more likely it is to stage a nationalist provocation to try to quiet internal dissent and unite the Chinese people against an external enemy.

As fate would have it, it was literally just this morning that the Chinese government announced that two amphibious assault ships have now been upgraded to “combat ready.” That’s the latest step in a sustained military expansion that inevitably has Taiwan as the Chinese military’s first stop in the region, and maybe not its last.

All of that being so, maybe it still doesn’t matter if Biden vocally supports the “zero COVID” protests. Should the unrest reach the point that revolution appears to be in the offing, Xi might attack Taiwan in any case simply to change the subject and force his subjects to look outward for a nemesis. But if the U.S. comes to be seen as the hidden hand behind protests that end up destabilizing the country, it might further boost the zeal of Chinese nationalists to target Taiwan. America caused China’s trouble by stirring the pot internally, they may conclude, and therefore it’s time for China to cause America some trouble in Taiwan.

So I err on the side of less antagonism here, although I reserve the right to change my mind if the protests take off and there’s some compelling reason to think exhortations from the White House will help the demonstrators succeed. Until then, I think the United States is speaking as loudly and effectively as it can in support of the protests by helping Ukraine bloody Russia. That’s a tacit message to Xi and the CCP that life can get much harder for them than they think if they take to pulverizing innocents indiscriminately. Or pulverizing them more so than usual, at least.

When you carry a big stick, you can afford to speak more softly. That’s the best play for the moment.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.