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Biden Calls Xi Jinping a “Dictator”: China-U.S. Relations and a Growing Multipolar World

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Officials in Beijing have denounced U.S. President Joe Biden for describing Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “dictator,” calling it a breach of diplomatic protocol. Biden’s remark at a fundraising event this week came just days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China to help thaw relations at a time of growing competition and suspicion between the two superpowers. “What Biden said, in fact, is true in every word,” says Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University, though he adds that China’s response is also expected, as Biden’s comments are a “violation of diplomatic protocol.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: China has blasted President Biden for calling Chinese President Xi Jinping a “dictator,” just days after Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Xi Jinping in Beijing in an attempt to stabilize relations amidst soaring tension over Taiwan and other issues. Blinken was the first U.S. secretary of state to travel to China since 2018.

Biden made his comment on Monday during a private fundraiser. He was talking about the U.S. shooting down a Chinese surveillance balloon in February. Biden said, quote, “And the reason why Xi Jinping got very upset in terms of when I shot that balloon down with two boxcars full of spy equipment in it is he didn’t know it was there,” Biden said. Biden went on to say that’s a, quote, “great embarrassment for dictators when they didn’t know what happened,” unquote. China’s foreign spokesperson, Mao Ning, blasted Biden’s comments.

MAO NING: [translated] The relevant remarks by the U.S. side are extremely absurd, irresponsible, and seriously violate basic facts, diplomatic protocol and China’s political dignity. They are an open political provocation. China is strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to this.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about U.S.-China relations, we’re joined by Ho-fung Hung. He is a professor of political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His books include Clash of Empires: From 'Chimerica' to the 'New Cold War' and The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World.

Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Why don’t you start off with this San Francisco fundraiser where Biden made these comments about Xi being a dictator, just after Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, met with Xi in Beijing?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yes, definitely, that what Biden said, in fact, is true in every word that Xi Jinping — everybody knows that he is a dictator. There’s no even presidential term limit of his rule, and he’s not elected. And he rule China authoritarianly, in a very authoritarian way. And also Biden said, which is true, is that it would an embarrassment if Xi Jinping didn’t know what is going on about the balloon.

But China’s response is right, in the sense that it is kind of a violation of diplomatic protocol, because many times for the sake of maintaining good relation, leaders don’t talk about some embarrassing or inconvenient truth to each other.

But Biden has his own reason to talk like that about Xi Jinping after Blinken’s visit to China, because there is a voice that Blinken is played and is not treated as a kind of equal compared to his predecessors, Mike Pompeo and John Kerry, when they are meeting with Xi, sort of for the internal — for the internal domestic audience. And Biden needs to shake the impression that he’s weak on China, so he needs to talk tough about China after the meeting.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, it’s extremely unfortunate, irrespective of the veracity of the claim. It’s unfortunate timing, because there were some advances in U.S.-China talks, at least, in resuming talks with Blinken’s visit to China. If you could elaborate on whose initiative it was that these talks took place in the first place, that Blinken went to China — his initial visit was postponed because of the controversy around the spy balloon — and the fact that China initially wanted to see first the U.S. treasury secretary and the commerce secretary, but the U.S. had said — had insisted that Blinken would come first?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yeah, definitely. Right now China’s economy is in bad shape, even after the pandemic, after opening, that the rebound, the widely talked-about, expected rebound, in China didn’t happen. And the Chinese local government and real estate developer and the important enterprises are still heavily in debt. So, China, really, at this time needs help from the U.S. economically, so it is why China would want to see some officials from the U.S. that is in charge of the economy.

But, of course, from the U.S. side of the thing, that the priority of the Biden administration is to minimize the risks of the U.S.-China relation and prevent it from escalating into military conflict. And while U.S. is very occupied with Russian incursion in Ukraine on that front, that the U.S. really want to put up some kind of a guardrail to prevent the deterioration of U.S.-China relations. So, it is also in consideration behind Biden’s sending Blinken to meet with Xi to establish some discussion and communication channel again diplomatically. So, it is a kind of a situation that the expectation about a talk between Blinken and Xi is not high. And after all, it only lasted 35 minutes, including translation. It’s very short. But the fact that they started to talk again and they also agreed to talk more is already a kind of achievement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you talk more about, Professor Hung, the economic dimensions to this meeting, the fact that we’re speaking now as Prime Minister Modi is in the U.S.? The U.S. is hoping, in part, to shift part of its manufacturing — the companies, U.S. companies, operating in China, to shift manufacturing from China to India. By way of example, at the moment, 95% of iPhones are made in China, but Apple is now considering — is moving manufacturing to India, which is projected to produce 25% of iPhones in just two years. China has also hosted several CEOs of tech companies in recent months, including Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan, and Apple’s Tim Cook. So, if you could talk about this, the potential shift of U.S. economic interests from China to India?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Definitely. It is already happening, that — for one thing, that China’s demographic and economic structures have been shifting. And we have been hearing a lot of reports about the rising wage in China, also the demographic fall in China, that China is running out of young people, not as much as like 20 or 30 years ago, when there’s a lot of young, educated, low-cost labor.

India is going to be the biggest nation demographically in the years to come. And India economy has been growing at a pace now faster than China. So, the corporations from the U.S., from Japan and many other parts of the world is already diversifying their operation in China to India and other states in Southeast Asia. But these Southeast Asian countries, none of them are as big demographically and economically than India. So, really, India is the place that many corporations are trying to move to. Of course, it’s very difficult to move all of the operations that is already existing in China to India. It will take time.

But the escalating U.S.-China competition and the risk of kind of sanctions, which is like what U.S. imposed and the world imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, increase the risk that anybody have investment in China, and also the Chinese policy itself, that the crackdown on Big Tech and its crackdown on due diligence consultancy firms in gathering economic data in China, also the COVID lockdown experience, give many U.S. corporations also cold feet, and then they really worry that the Chinese economic involvement and the government economic policy is no longer as predictable, as friendly to foreign enterprises as before. So, it’s all these factors act together. We see that even Apple, as you mentioned, is already diversifying their operation to India and also to Vietnam, as well, to minimize the risks they are going to face in China. So this trend is already happening. So, India is the go-to place, and the U.S. intention to shore up its relation, economic and strategic relation with India, is probably going to accelerate this trend.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, Ho-fung Hung, but I wanted to ask you about the role of China when it comes to putting pressure on Russia around the Ukraine war or acting as a mediator. You already have China earlier this year mediating an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Can you talk about what you see China’s role could be?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yeah. There is little China can do, that the Chinese government would not, I won’t think — I don’t think Chinese government would explicitly help Russia on the military side of the thing, but many companies and private companies or semi-private and state companies in China can help Russia, and then the Chinese government can disown them and saying that “I don’t know about it.” So, on one thing, China’s interest is that the conflict in Ukraine will prolong, so the Western alliance will be occupied with that. But at the same time, China really will be interested in participating in the postwar or kind of reconstruction in Ukraine to get some of the reconstruction contracts, so China cannot present itself as too much totally on the side of Russia. So, China is caught in this kind of a dilemma right now. And so far, it is playing very well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ho-fung Hung, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His books, Clash of Empires: [From 'Chimerica' to the] 'New Cold War' and The China Boom.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we speak to Joy Buolamwini, the founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, just after she met with President Biden in San Francisco to discuss the dangers of AI. Back in 30 seconds.

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