Skip to content
Biden-Xi Summit Only Highlights Fundamental Differences Between U.S. and China
Go to my account

Biden-Xi Summit Only Highlights Fundamental Differences Between U.S. and China

Xi’s buzzwords that mimic progressive rhetoric can’t hide the country’s totalitarian intolerance of any speech the CCP deems unacceptable.

Earlier this month, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai went missing. Peng, an accomplished women’s doubles player, reportedly accused former Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of inappropriate sexual conduct during what was not always a consensual relationship. The accusation first appeared in a post on Peng’s verified account on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, on November 2. In about 20 minutes, the post had been taken down and Peng has not been seen in public since.

As Peng’s case garnered more attention, Chinese media produced an email that was purportedly written by her, claiming that the allegation against Zhang isn’t true and all is well. Few are buying it. The chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), Steve Simon, released a strongly worded statement casting doubt on the email. “The WTA and the rest of the world need independent and verifiable proof that she is safe,“’ Simon wrote. “I have repeatedly tried to reach her via numerous forms of communication, to no avail.” 

American tennis star Serena Williams and other famous athletes also came to Peng’s defense. Williams tweeted that this “must be investigated and we must not stay silent.” Meanwhile, Simon says that the WTA is willing to forgo hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue if Peng isn’t located and her claims investigated. The WTA held nine tournaments in China in 2019, before the pandemic disrupted travel, and has focused much of its expansion efforts in the country the last several years.

There’s still much we don’t know about Peng’s disappearance. But the WTA and its stars have already demonstrated more moral clarity and courage than others in the professional sports business, including the NBA. Just a few years ago, the world’s premiere basketball league refused to stand by an executive who had the audacity to criticize Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. When then Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message of support for Hong Kongers in 2019, the Lakers’ Lebron James claimed that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation at hand.” Except, there was nothing wrong about what Morey tweeted—other than it would potentially cost the NBA billions of dollars in revenue. Just yesterday, Enes Kanter of the Celtics, tore into James, accusing him of putting his “money over morals.” 

The NBA is hardly the only big business to waffle under Beijing’s pressure. In May, wrestling and movie star John Cena issued a groveling, 68-second apology in Mandarin after he said that Taiwan was a country. Cena may have the body of Captain America, but he doesn’t have the backbone of the fictional comic book character. “Cap” punched the dictator of his day, Adolf Hitler—he didn’t prostrate himself before the German people to make a buck. Cena’s disgraceful video, in which he didn’t actually explain what he had done wrong, was posted on Weibo—the very same social media platform that caught the attention of Peng’s minders in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Xi and Biden meetvirtually.

Which brings us to the virtual meeting between Biden and Xi on Monday, November 15. Understandably, they are searching for ways to avoid direct confrontation. As the sports and entertainment world shows, however, there is really no way to skirt around the fundamental differences between the two nations and their cultures. And although the exchange was civil, there were some points of tension that deserve additional attention. 

Xi repeated many of the same buzzwords and phrases that he and other Chinese officials have leaned on for years. As I’ve noted in the past, the CCP’s leaders often mimic progressive-sounding rhetoric. For example, Xi told Biden that the two countries need to work together as part of a “global village,” “coexist in peace,” “pursue win-win cooperation” and engage in “multilateralism.” Xi emphasized that the two sides should work closely together with respect to combating climate change, as they transition to “green and low-carbon” economies.  

Xi was keen to frame U.S.-Chinese relations as a boon for humanity. He claimed that the “most important event in international relations over the past 50 years was the reopening and development of China-U.S. relations, which has benefited the two countries and the whole world.” 

There’s little doubt that Nixon’s opening to China in the early 1970s generated benefits—mainly economic. But as Xi surely knows, many Americans in Washington and elsewhere have increasingly questioned whether the costs of the relationship—in political, national security, and economic terms—outweigh those benefits. After all, Washington’s shallow assumption was that economic liberalization would lead to some degree of political liberalization. China’s totalitarian intolerance for any speech deemed unacceptable shows why that belief was misplaced.

Xi sought to sidestep this thorny calculation, arguing that the two nations’ are “deeply intertwined” and the “most important event in international relations in the coming 50 years will be for China and the U.S. to find the right way to get along.” 

“History is a fair judge,” Xi added. He then proceeded to subtly lecture America’s commander-in-chief: “What a statesman does, be it right or wrong, be it an accomplishment or a failure, will all be recorded by history. It is hoped that President Biden will demonstrate political leadership and steer America’s China policy back on the track of reason and pragmatism.”

That is, Xi hopes that Washington will revert to the old mode of the past—when America’s leaders looked the other way as Beijing used its increasing economic clout to build a war machine and challenge the West’s global standing.  

While President Biden is not itching for a fight, there is no indication that he is willing to revert to the old ways. According to the White House’s readout, the president “underscored that the United States will continue to stand up for its interests and values and, together with our allies and partners, ensure the rules of the road for the 21st century advance an international system that is free, open, and fair.”

Free. Open. Fair. Those are the words President Biden chose to describe his vision of the “international system,” which he sees as embroiled in a contest between democracies and autocracies. 

Xi’s vision is radically different—even if he doesn’t explicitly say so. 

While Xi preached the need to “uphold the international system with the [United Nations] at its core,” it’s obvious that he does not think this system should be geared to protect Western-style freedom. Indeed, Xi claimed that just as “civilizations are rich and diverse … so is democracy.” He tried to deflect Biden’s pro-democracy arguments. “Democracy is not mass produced with a uniform model or configuration for countries around the world,” Xi said. “Whether a country is democratic or not should be left to its own people to decide. Dismissing forms of democracy that are different from one’s own is in itself undemocratic.”

In other words, Xi would have us believe that China is a form of democracy and those who claim otherwise are being “undemocratic.” Obviously, Xi is making hash out of the word “democracy”—expanding its definition to be so elastic that it can even accommodate even the world’s worst autocrats. 

Biden assured Xi that the U.S. is not agitating for Taiwan’s independence. But Xi drew a line in the sand just to be clear, saying it “is important that the U.S. properly handle the relevant issues with prudence.” He blamed Taiwanese leaders for the escalating tensions, arguing that the “Taiwan authorities” who “look for U.S. support for their independence agenda” are the ones “playing with fire.” Their moves “are extremely dangerous.” 

“Whoever plays with fire will get burnt,” Xi warned.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.