Tonight, United States President Joseph R. Biden will “meet virtually” with Chinese President Xi Jinping, yet the agenda for their discussion remains unclear.
The Biden administration deserves credit for calling out Chinese government crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs; recently imposed sanctions and a business advisory on Hong Kong; and participation in joint statements at the United Nations condemning the Chinese government’s human rights violations.
But it’s not clear that the Biden administration has specific human rights goals, let alone a strategy to achieve them. It appears not to have used the summit itself as a point of leverage to demand the release of wrongfully detained individuals, such as Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist detained for sharing information about the Covid crisis in Wuhan.
Nor is there evidence of careful coordination within the administration: Biden speaks of the centrality of human rights across his China policy, yet other senior officials, like climate czar John Kerry, continues to suggest that human rights are “not my lane”; a position no one from the White House challenges or corrects.
But most worrying is that despite the President and Secretary of State calling out Xi’s human rights crimes, they appear to be approaching Xi and his increasingly repressive government without further “repercussions,” as Biden suggested earlier this year. That in turn reassures Xi that there will be no consequences for continuing to commit human rights crimes, just the occasional uncomfortable rhetoric.
There’s still time for the US to fix this. President Biden should announce at the start of the summit that he has committed to mapping out pathways to accountability for Chinese officials implicated in human rights crimes. He could describe launching new initiatives to ensure American companies thoroughly assess their supply chains for evidence of forced labor, and to ensure Chinese companies complicit in repression find no room in US markets, pension plans, or stock indexes. He should announce the administration’s support for the Uyghur Forced Labor Policy Act.
If the Biden administration isn’t ready to do more than merely “raise” human rights issues with President Xi, it won’t just have needlessly given away opportunities for change. It will also have profoundly disappointed all those suffering Chinese government abuses and emboldened their abusers.