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Reading Between the Lines of Biden’s and Xi’s U.N. Speeches
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Reading Between the Lines of Biden’s and Xi’s U.N. Speeches

Xi paid lip service to democracy while gaslighting the U.S., while Biden called out authoritarianism without mentioning China’s treatment of Hong Kong or Taiwan.

This week, President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping spoke in front of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly. In this era of so-called great power competition between their two nations, it is useful to compare their arguments and rhetoric. 

Xi, in accordance with usual style, spoke in flowery, benign-sounding phrases. His speech was titled, “Bolstering Confidence and Jointly Overcoming Difficulties to Build a Better World.” Who could object to such a noble goal? 

Indeed, Xi often sounded like a Western progressive – not an autocrat sitting atop the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Consider these lines.

“The Chinese people have always celebrated and striven to pursue the vision of peace, amity and harmony,” Xi told the United Nations. “China has never and will never invade or bully others, or seek hegemony.” The CCP head went on to claim that China has “always” been “a builder of world peace,” a “contributor to global development,” and a “defender of the international order and provider of public goods.”

Many countries in China’s neighborhood or elsewhere around the globe would disagree with Xi’s self-assessment. China’s bullying style in world affairs is readily apparent. 

But the point of Xi’s rhetoric is to deflect attention from the CCP’s own designs, while portraying America as the true aggressor. Xi and Beijing’s diplomats have adopted a common script – a set of talking points that are intended to cast the CCP as a guarantor of world stability. 

Therefore, Xi spoke of “multilateralism” and “win-win” policies in which China cooperates with others on the global stage. But it doesn’t take much to see that Xi is simply gaslighting his audience. 

For example: 

Democracy is not a special right reserved to an individual country, but a right for the people of all countries to enjoy. Recent developments in the global situation show once again that military intervention from the outside and so-called democratic transformation entail nothing but harm. We need to advocate peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom, which are the common values of humanity, and reject the practice of forming small circles or zero-sum games.

Of course, the Chinese people do not “enjoy” democracy and freedom. The second sentence in the passage above is a thinly veiled critique of the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But many in the U.S., including President Biden, agree that it is foolhardy to seek “democratic transformation” through “military intervention.” That doesn’t mean the CCP has a viable alternative model for democracy promotion. Quite the opposite. 

Which brings us to President Biden’s speech. Throughout the first year of his presidency, Biden has repeatedly framed his foreign policy in terms of a contest between autocracies and democracies. He returned to that theme at the U.N. While the president mentions initiatives such as the “Quad” (a partnership between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.), which seeks to contain the CCP, he did not address the Chinese challenge directly. 

“Authoritarianism — the authoritarianism of the world may seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong,” President Biden said. “The truth is: The democratic world is everywhere.”  

“It lives in the anti-corruption activists, the human rights defenders, the journalists, the peace protestors on the frontlines of this struggle in Belarus, Burma, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, and everywhere in between,” President Biden said. 

“Everywhere in between.” Noticeably absent from President Biden’s list of frontline struggles was any mention of Hong Kong or Taiwan. 

As President Biden’s own secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said earlier this year: “The Chinese government continues to undermine the democratic institutions of Hong Kong, denying Hong Kong residents the rights that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself has guaranteed.” 

Yet, for some reason, the CCP’s oppression of Hong Kongers didn’t warrant a mention in the president’s speech. Nor did the small democracy in Taiwan, which finds itself increasingly worried about its future. It is a curious omission, given that there is no better example of a democratic alternative for the Chinese mainland than Taiwan.

President Biden did mention in passing the CCP’s domineering ways in Xinjiang. “We all must call out and condemn the targeting and oppression of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities when it occurs in—whether it occurs in Xinjiang or northern Ethiopia or anywhere in the world,” the president said. But in his “call out,” the president did not explicitly lay blame on Xi Jinping’s regime. 

Another nascent democracy, the one in Afghanistan, was just toppled in August. There is no question that the now deposed government in Kabul was deeply corrupt and incompetent. But it was backed by the U.S. for nearly two decades and has been replaced by an authoritarian regime that openly celebrates the 9/11 hijackings while promoting its own suicide bombers. 

President Biden did not express any alarm at America’s defeat in Afghanistan. He was just happy that America’s role in the war is over. “We’ve ended 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan,” the president said.  The president claimed that he was bringing a “close” to “this period of relentless war,” replacing it with “a new era of relentless diplomacy” that will supposedly be responsible for “lifting people up around the world,” “renewing and defending democracy” in the process. But the president’s contrast between war and diplomacy ignores the fact America’s engagement with the Taliban paved the way for the jihadists to take over the country.

The president went further, declaring an end to the post-9/11 era. “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war,” the president said.  “We’ve turned the page” Just one day prior, however, the U.S. launched a drone strike on a car carrying a suspected senior al-Qaeda leader in Idlib, Syria. It’s true that thousands of American troops no longer fight pitched battles, but that has been true for some time. And the drones are still flying. Moreover, the jihadists haven’t “turned the page” on us. 

At other points in their speeches, President Biden and Xi Jinping appeared to agree. They both spoke of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. But overall, their rhetoric left one with the impression that they were the captains of two ships passing in the night. Appearances can be deceiving.   

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.