After what seemed a productive meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in San Francisco on Wednesday, an offhand remark by Biden could set back the relationship that the two leaders were working to mend.
“After today, would you still refer to President Xi as a dictator?” a CNN reporter asked Biden at the end of a post-summit briefing, referring to the President’s previous labeling of the Chinese leader that has incensed Beijing before.
“Well, look, he is. I mean he’s a dictator in the sense that here’s a guy who runs a country that is a communist country based on a form of government totally different than ours,” Biden responded.
"After today, would you still refer to President Xi as a dictator?" asks a reporter.
"Look, he is. He's a dictator in the sense that he's a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that's based on a form of government totally different than ours," says Pres. Biden. pic.twitter.com/JjZeGBNcU2
— Last Call (@LastCallCNBC) November 16, 2023
Biden’s comments came just after he had praised the progress made during his talks with Xi, describing them as “some of the most constructive and productive discussions we’ve had.”
The two leaders, who met face-to-face for the first time in a year in a bid to repair the deteriorating relationship between their countries, agreed to restore military communications, cooperate on addressing artificial intelligence risks, and curb the flow of fentanyl from China to the U.S., though they did not reach any resolution on other issues, including the future of Taiwan, ongoing tariffs and sanctions, and the release of U.S. citizens detained in China.
But Biden’s “dictator” comment could overshadow efforts made to cool tensions. Xi made no mention of it when speaking to U.S. business leaders at a dinner event later Wednesday night, but during a routine press briefing on Thursday in Beijing, the Chinese foreign ministry said it “strongly opposes” the statement, which ministry spokesperson Mao Ning described as “extremely wrong and irresponsible political manipulation.”
“It should be pointed out that there will always be some people with ulterior motives who attempt to incite and damage U.S.-China relations, they are doomed to fail,” Mao added, though she declined to identify who she was referring to when reporters asked in a follow-up question, according to Reuters.
In an earlier statement released after the meeting, China’s foreign ministry had emphasized that “as long as the two countries respect each other, coexist in peace and pursue win-win cooperation, they will be fully capable of rising above differences and find the right way for the two major countries to get along with each other.” The statement also said: “It is important that they appreciate each other’s principles and red lines, and refrain from flip-flopping, being provocative, and crossing the lines.”
It’s not the first time Biden has referred to his Chinese counterpart as a dictator. In January last year, he said China and Russia were betting that the U.S. would “become more like them,” as in, he clarified, “a place for the autocrat, the dictator, the strongman.” Then, in April 2022, he listed China among countries that are “essentially dictatorships” during a speech at a Democratic fundraiser.
In November last year, Xi told Biden when the two met in Bali on the sidelines of the G20 summit that the “so-called ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ narrative is not the defining feature of today’s world,” and that “China has Chinese-style democracy,” Chinese state media reported at the time.
Nevertheless, in June this year, Biden once again called Xi a dictator, explaining at a fundraiser in California that the reason why Xi was upset after the U.S. shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon in U.S. airspace in February was because the Chinese President was caught off guard by the entire incident. “That’s what’s a great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened,” Biden said.
In response, the Chinese foreign ministry called Biden’s remarks “extremely absurd and irresponsible” and “blatant political provocation,” saying that they “go totally against facts and seriously violate diplomatic protocol, and severely infringe on China’s political dignity.”
“With the latest irresponsible remarks about China’s political system and its top leader, people cannot help but question the sincerity of the U.S. side,” China’s embassy in Washington said in a statement at the time.
But Biden doubled down on his description of Xi and insisted it would not have a negative impact on U.S.-China relations. “I expect to be meeting with President Xi sometime in the future, near-term. And I don’t think it’s had any real consequence,” he said.
After Wednesday’s post-summit briefing, the White House has not offered any comment or clarification on Biden’s latest “dictator” remarks.
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