US President Joe Biden has appeared to downplay China’s genocide of Uighur Muslims, saying “culturally there are different norms” in every country.
Mr Biden made the comments during a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, where he was asked by host Anderson Cooper about his recent conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
In that conversation, the newly elected President reportedly pressed his counterpart over human rights abuses in Hong Kong and the northwestern Xinjiang province, where more than one million Uighur men and women have reportedly been detained in a sprawling network of “re-education” camps.
Mr Biden answered by relaying Mr Xi’s justification for the abuses, saying the Chinese President “gets it”.
“You know, Chinese leaders, if you know anything about Chinese history, it has always been, the time when China has been victimised by the outer world is when they haven’t been unified at home,” he said.
“So the central – it’s vastly overstated – the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China, and he uses his rationale for the things he does based on that.”
Mr Biden continued, “I point out to him no American president can be sustained as a president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States, and so the idea I’m not going to speak out against what he’s doing in Hong Kong, what he’s doing with the Uighurs in western mountains of China, and Taiwan, trying to end the One China policy by making it forceful … I said, and, by the, he said, he – he gets it. Culturally there are different norms that each country and their leaders are expected to follow.”
Cooper asked, “When you talk to him, though, about human rights abuses, is that as far as it goes in terms of the US, or is there going to be any actual repercussions for China?”
Mr Biden replied, “Well, there will be repercussions for China, and he knows that. What I’m doing is making clear that we are going to reassert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the UN and other agencies that have an impact on their attitudes. China is trying very hard to become the world leader, and to get that moniker and to be able to do that, that have to gain the confidence of other countries. And as long as they are engaged in activity that is contrary to basic human rights, it’s gonna be hard for them to do that.”
He added, “But it’s much more complicated than that, I shouldn’t try to talk China policy in 10 minutes on television here.”
Conservatives slammed Mr Biden’s response. “Is genocide a cultural norm? Asking for a few hundreds of millions of friends,” lawyer Harmeet Dhillon tweeted.
Former Republican Party spokesman Steve Guest described it as “shameful”.
Even CNN editor-at-large Chris Cillizza was less than impressed, describing the answer as “rambling” and “(hard) to follow” – although putting it last on his list of “six takeaways” from the town hall.
It comes after Mr Biden’s own State Department said it was “deeply disturbed” by reports that Uighur women being held in re-education camps were being systematically raped and sexually tortured.
The BBC interviewed several former detainees, who described seeing women removed from their cells “every night” to be raped or tortured – including with an “electric stick”.
“These atrocities shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences,” a Biden State Department spokeswoman told Reuters earlier this month.
“We are deeply disturbed by reports, including first-hand testimony, of systematic rape and sexual abuse against women in internment camps for ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.”
The Chinese government banned the BBC following the publication of the report, saying the British broadcaster was not being “factual or fair” and had produced a “slew of falsified reporting”.
Former president Donald Trump took a hard-line stance on China, slapping visa restrictions and financial sanctions on Communist Party officials over the “horrific abuses” against the Uighurs.
In one of his final official acts, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally declared that China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in its treatment of the Uighurs and other minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
During his Senate confirmation hearings, Mr Biden’s Secretary of State pick Antony Blinken praised the Trump administration’s handling of China and said the Biden administration would continue to take a “tougher approach”.
Mr Blinken said he agreed with his predecessor’s characterisation of China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims as “genocide”.
“That would be my judgment as well,” he said.
“I think we’re very much in agreement. The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps – trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party, all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
Asked what actions he would take in his first month, Mr Blinken said the US “should be looking at making sure that we are not importing products that are made with forced labour from Xinjiang”.
“We need to make sure that we’re also not exporting technologies and tools that could be used to further their repression,” he said. “That’s one place to start.”