China responded with strong criticism after U.S. President Joe Biden referred to President Xi Jinping as a “dictator,” igniting tensions between the two nations. The remarks were deemed absurd and provocative by Chinese officials, leading to an unexpected escalation following recent efforts to ease friction.
Biden made these comments shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his visit to China aimed at stabilizing relations, which Beijing claims are currently at their lowest point since the establishment of formal ties in 1979.
During a fundraising event in California, Biden recounted an incident where a suspected Chinese spy balloon had inadvertently entered U.S. airspace earlier this year. Blinken had previously suggested that the issue should be resolved and put behind them.
Biden stated, “Xi Jinping was incredibly embarrassed when I took down that balloon containing spy equipment. He had no knowledge of its presence, and that’s a significant embarrassment for dictators. They despise being caught off guard when events don’t unfold as planned.”
Xi Jinping solidified his position as China’s most influential leader since Mao Zedong by securing an unprecedented third term as president in March, as well as becoming the head of the Communist Party in October.
Critics argue that China operates under a one-party system, devoid of an independent judiciary, free media, or universal suffrage for national office, leading many human rights groups, Western leaders, and academics to label it as a dictatorship.
Individuals critical of Xi and the ruling party face online censorship and potential detention, exacerbating concerns about human rights in China.
Biden also acknowledged China’s “genuine economic challenges” during his statement.
The U.S. president has previously referred to China as “essentially” a dictatorship and “a place for the autocrat, the dictator,” while emphasizing that no other global leader aspires to be like Xi Jinping.
However, Biden’s recent comments regarding the Chinese leader were particularly direct and drew swift response from the Chinese government.
Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, denounced Biden’s remarks as “extremely absurd,” “irresponsible,” and a serious violation of diplomatic protocol and China’s political dignity. She characterized them as an open political provocation during a regular press briefing.
When asked whether Biden’s comments would impact future visits between U.S. and Chinese officials, Vedant Patel, the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokesperson, affirmed that Washington anticipates engagements “in due course, when the time is appropriate.” Patel emphasized the importance of diplomacy in managing tensions and resolving misunderstandings, while acknowledging the need for candid discussion about differences.
Despite the impact on mutual trust, experts downplayed the potential long-term damage to U.S.-China engagement. Wu Xinbo, the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, referred to Biden’s remarks as a product of his outspoken nature, which may affect trust-building between leaders but not erase the progress achieved during Blinken’s visit.
Yun Sun, the head of the China program at Washington’s Stimson Center, suggested that both sides might seek to deescalate the situation, allowing the path towards a bilateral summit between Xi Jinping and Biden in November to remain intact. This meeting could potentially occur during the United States’ hosting of the APEC forum.
While Blinken’s visit did not yield any major breakthroughs, he and Xi agreed to stabilize the U.S.-China rivalry and prevent it from escalating into conflict. Both sides expressed their commitment to continued diplomatic engagement, with more visits by U.S. officials planned for the near future.
Biden also mentioned the possibility of U.S. climate envoy John Kerry visiting China soon, signaling a positive trajectory for bilateral relations. The U.S. president expressed optimism about the current state of affairs and the progress made during Blinken’s trip.