‘It’s Freedom vs. Totalitarianism’: Experts Reflect on Biden–Xi Meeting

‘It’s Freedom vs. Totalitarianism’: Experts Reflect on Biden–Xi Meeting
(Illustration by The Epoch Times, Getty Images)
November 22, 2023
Updated:
November 27, 2023
0:00
Cracking down on fentanyl, resuming military talks, and opening a presidential hotline. President Joe Biden walked away from the carefully planned U.S.–China meeting hailing “real progress.” But one question remains: Will the communist regime deliver?

Much of the real results will rest on Beijing’s willingness to change. Although given the track record of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Biden administration, which argues for a non-confrontational approach, is circumspect.

“‘Trust but verify,’ as the old saying goes. That’s where I am,” President Biden told reporters shortly after an hours-long summit that saw him walking with Chinese communist leader Xi Jinping in the historic Filoli Garden in San Francisco, their first in-person meeting in a year.

The U.S. president repeated the sentiment on Nov. 21 when talking about China taking steps to curb fentanyl outflow: “We’re not just going to trust that this is happening—we have to verify it. And that’s going to save lives.”

In twice invoking the Russian proverb, the president brought to mind President Ronald Reagan, who made the phrase famous during the Cold War by taking it up as his guiding principle in dealing with the Soviet Union.

But to China watchers such as Miles Yu, a principal China policy adviser for the Trump administration, that level of prudence is no longer sufficient.

“The premise should not start with trust,” he told The Epoch Times.

“A big dose of suspicion” from President Biden is “80 percent” the right move, in view of the regime’s repeated violations of U.S. leaders’ trust since the 1940s, though, to “distrust but verify” would be more realistic.

“We should naturally approach China with the assumption that they are not going to abide by the agreement, and it’s incumbent upon China to prove otherwise,” he said. “So verification is actually to verify whether they would continue the pattern of violation or not.”

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023. Biden and Xi met for the first time in a year. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023. Biden and Xi met for the first time in a year. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Some Republican lawmakers put it more bluntly.

“I do not trust a word that Xi Jinping says, and neither should any American, including Joe Biden,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told The Epoch Times after the meeting. “Actions speak louder than words. And communist China’s actions have told us that they choose to be our enemy.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) likewise cautioned the United States to “go into this eyes wide open.”

“They’re a totalitarian regime. They can say whatever they want, truthful or untruthful, and it doesn’t go against their morals,” he told The Epoch Times’ sister media outlet, NTD.

‘Freedom Versus Totalitarianism’

The Biden administration defines the U.S.–China relationship as one of “vigorous competition,” characterized by advancing shared interests while competing militarily, diplomatically, and economically. What’s less talked about—and what Mr. Yu argues is more critical—is the difference between the two governance models that drive them.

“It’s freedom versus totalitarianism; I think that’s something that’s missing in today’s dialogue with China,” he said.

There’s at least an implicit understanding of the ideological aspect within the Biden administration, Mr. Yu said.

In an off-the-cuff remark on Nov. 15, just before leaving the briefing room, President Biden affirmed that he stood by his previous comments in calling the regime’s leader a “dictator.”
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a press conference after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Woodside, Calif., on Nov. 15, 2023. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
“Look, he is. I mean, he’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country,” he told reporters. “It’s a communist country based on a form of government totally different from ours.”

But when it comes to a China strategy, having awareness alone falls somewhat short, according to Mr. Yu.

“That should be a part of open public diplomacy,” he said. “The idea that somehow we’re going to engage with China economically and culturally, you cannot really do that”—especially when the Chinese regime is doing all it can to block Americans from engaging with China on a personal level.

Admit or not, he said, “everything boils down to ideology”—a reason that the CCP’s Politburo, the country’s top policy-making body, decides not only the political but also the economic agenda.

“I think we have entered the stage where we don’t have to be shy about talking about the ideology and the political systems, because China constantly talks about this,“ he said. ”That’s all they’re talking about inside China. The interaction and engagement with the United States is basically, fundamentally, a matter of an ideological confrontation.”

China's foreign minister Qin Gang attends a press conference during the 14th National People's Congress in Beijing on March 7, 2023. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
China's foreign minister Qin Gang attends a press conference during the 14th National People's Congress in Beijing on March 7, 2023. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Beijing’s Problems

Flying to San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit marked Xi’s first U.S. trip in six years, and he was leaving a cascade of crises brewing at home.

The property sector that for decades propelled China’s economic growth is on the verge of collapse. More than 1 in 5 young Chinese people were jobless as of August, the last time the regime released the data.

In addition to a worsening food shortage exacerbated by floods, droughts, and other natural disasters, China is reckoning with trillions of dollars of local government debt, an aging workforce, and political uncertainties that contribute to an accelerating capital flight.

“You name it, China’s got it,” Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” told The Epoch Times. “For Xi Jinping to come over here and make nice, for China to stop basically five years of hostile propaganda on a dime, that’s really quite stunning. I’m not saying they like us now—of course they don’t—but the point is, they probably feel pretty weak.”

Attending the APEC summit and meeting with President Biden was a frantic effort to keep the regime afloat, Mr. Chang said. During the summit, Chinese state media suddenly dropped years of hostile rhetoric and instead carried stories saluting American pilots who helped fight Japan in World War II and the headline, “Friendship between Chinese, American people in new era.”

An aerial photo shows deserted villas in a suburb of Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning Province on March 31, 2023. China's real estate industry is in a record-breaking slump. (JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows deserted villas in a suburb of Shenyang in China's northeastern Liaoning Province on March 31, 2023. China's real estate industry is in a record-breaking slump. (JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images)

Ahead of the bilateral talks, China also made a surprise purchase of millions of tons of U.S. soybeans, the largest purchase in months.

“It’s just whatever these guys think they need to do to survive,” Mr. Chang said. “Desperate people do desperate things.”

The Biden administration made clear that it knows where the two sides stand at the negotiation table. During a background briefing call a day before the bilateral engagement, a senior administration official said they had “come into this meeting with a high degree of confidence.”

“I think China is facing some real challenges,” he said. “These are not a secret.”

If Mr. Chang wasn’t surprised to find Beijing willing to pull back, he wasn’t overly optimistic about the Chinese regime’s sticking to its commitments.

“They will only honor their promises when they’re forced to,” he said. Only by imposing severe consequences, he said, will the Party see a reason to moderate its behavior.

People attend a job fair in Beijing on Aug. 19, 2023. Millions of graduates are entering China's job market at a time of soaring youth unemployment. (JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images)
People attend a job fair in Beijing on Aug. 19, 2023. Millions of graduates are entering China's job market at a time of soaring youth unemployment. (JADE GAO/AFP via Getty Images)

‘Talk Is Cheap’

Some analysts said that the meeting was light on substantial deliverables.

Despite that President Biden called the discussions “some of the most constructive and productive” they’ve had, neither party seemed to have succeeded in bringing the other to its side.

Taiwan, which occupied a substantial part of the talks, continues to be a top flashpoint, with the Chinese side declaring that its will to take over the island is “unstoppable.” Chinese military activity renewed around Taiwan shortly after the APEC conference, and aircraft and warships carrying out “combat readiness patrols” crossed the sensitive median line of the Taiwan Strait on Nov. 19.

And even with human rights brought to the table, those hoping to shine a light on the ongoing abuses in China found themselves a target for attacks from the regime’s agents on U.S. soil.

Activists recounted being surrounded by Party supporters wearing black or red and waving communist flags. On the way to protest at the San Francisco Airport, a Chinese dissident was left with a cut on the forehead, a swollen eye, and bleeding lips after being punched and kicked.

“The Chinese Communist Party always talks a good game. But when it comes to their actions, it is a different story,” Keith Krach, former U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, told The Epoch Times. “There is nothing that has demonstrated Xi’s aggressive tactics are slowing down anytime soon.”

Derek Scissors, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was equally dismissive.

Police stand guard as pro-China and anti-communist protesters line the streets at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Nov.15, 2023. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Police stand guard as pro-China and anti-communist protesters line the streets at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Nov.15, 2023. (JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

“Talk is cheap,” he told The Epoch Times.

Xi’s visit became a propaganda opportunity for the regime. The Chinese foreign ministry website noted that Chinese groups “lined the streets to warmly welcome” the Chinese delegation’s arrival, omitting that many of them were paid by the Chinese Consulates.

“This meeting should have been part of APEC, but Xi doesn’t want to do that. He wants to have the world focus on him,” Mr. Yu said.

That the Chinese leadership is eager for U.S. money was evident when Xi skipped the APEC leader’s dinner and instead hosted a lavish banquet with U.S. executives, with seats at his table selling for $40,000 each.

Prominent attendees at the banquet such as Apple’s Tim Cook already have a presence in China, and many U.S. companies are now working out a plan B to move some of their manufacturing capability to friendlier shores.

Apple employees (in green) cheer as they welcome customers during the opening of Apple's first retail store in Mumbai, India, on April 18, 2023. Apple has incresed its focus on the South Asian nation as a key sales market and alternative manufacturing hub to China. (PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images)
Apple employees (in green) cheer as they welcome customers during the opening of Apple's first retail store in Mumbai, India, on April 18, 2023. Apple has incresed its focus on the South Asian nation as a key sales market and alternative manufacturing hub to China. (PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images)

“They had to be there because they were already there. The stake was very high if they didn’t show up,” Mr. Yu said. What’s more noteworthy, in his mind, is the people who weren’t there. One such person is Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg—usually one of “the regulars for this kind of meeting” but whose Facebook app is banned in China.

Foreign investors have been accelerating their exit from China since the pandemic as tightening national security regulations, lack of transparency on the economy, and an increasingly hostile political climate have weakened the country’s appeal.

“It’s not because people do not want to make money in China, it’s that China has made investment absolutely impossible,” Mr. Yu said. “Being in bed with China, particularly with Xi Jinping, is a liability.”

‘Zombie Engagement’?

Beijing critics aren’t impressed by what the Biden administration accomplished from the meeting.

“Getting this meeting has been the focus of U.S. foreign policy for the past year, but thus far all we’ve seen are promises of future talks and potentially new pandas being sent to the D.C. zoo. That’s incredibly disappointing,” Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Select Committee on the CCP, told The Epoch Times.

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for a meeting of economic leaders on the last day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Nov. 17, 2023. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
China's President Xi Jinping arrives for a meeting of economic leaders on the last day of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco on Nov. 17, 2023. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’ve taken our foot off the gas when it comes to things like sanctioning Chinese officials for egregious human rights abuses, pushing back against unprecedented pressure against Taiwan, and transparency on the spy balloon, or origins of COVID. It came at a great cost to get this meeting, and I had hoped more would come out of it.”

Mr. Gallagher said he had wanted APEC to be “the end of the road for zombie engagement.”

At a press conference held with Chinese democracy activists in San Francisco during APEC, he told The Epoch Times that he views the pursuit of engagement with China both “dangerous” and “naive.” ​
“Paradoxically, it’s going to make the Chinese Communist Party more aggressive because these Marxist Leninist regimes tend to get more aggressive the more you appease and accommodate them.”

Mr. Chang said he holds the same view.

He frowned upon the U.S. removal of a Chinese forensic police institute from a human rights sanction list in exchange for Beijing’s cooperation regarding fentanyl.

“The Chinese are ruthlessly pragmatic,” and any concession or tradeoff would come off as a sign of fear and give the regime “wrong incentives,” he said.

Nonetheless, he credited President Biden for calling out the regime leader.

“Biden’s cutting them down to size in saying: ‘I’m not afraid of you. You’re a dictator. I’m calling you a dictator.’ I think that’s great. We need more of that from this administration.”

Terri Wu and NTD’s Steve Lance contributed to this report.
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