The United States sent Chinese President Xi Jinping a dissonant message on human rights this week when the Biden administration and California officials rolled out the red carpet for the brutal dictator.
Xi’s 10 years as president are marked by a genocide against China’s Muslim minority, attempts to wipe out Tibetan culture, and persecution of Christians and followers of Falun Gong – not to mention a crackdown on democracy, religious freedom, and civil rights in Hong Kong.
Yet, during official and unofficial meetings this week, there was no mention of the long list of atrocities. Instead, Xi received an unusually warm reception.
On Wednesday night in the confines of San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency ballroom, America’s corporate chieftains gathered to fete Xi as a “guest of honor” at a banquet drawing nearly 400 attendees. The gala took place on the sidelines of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, a gathering of 21 member countries to support free trade and business ties.
The executives were so excited to share the room with the Chinese president that they gave him two standing ovations before Xi uttered a word. American titans of business, including Apple’s Tim Cook and Blackstone’s Steve Schwarzman, Black Rock’s Larry Fink, Boeing’s Stanley Deal, and Pfizer’s Albert Bourla, joined Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo to rub shoulders with Xi and a cohort of Chinese officials.
Tickets for the banquet started at $2,000 each, with several companies shelling out $40,000 to buy eight seats at a table in the ballroom and one at Xi’s table. After Xi’s remarks, attendees provided yet another standing ovation, according to Reuters.
Some executives made no attempt to hide their gushing. On the way into the Hyatt, Bridgewater Associates hedge fund founder Ray Dalio told the Financial Times that he was “excited to have this relationship [with Xi].”
If Dalio entered the hotel from the main lobby, he couldn’t have avoided the polar opposite scene and messaging. A Tibetan student activist named Tsela had strapped herself to a flagpole and was waving the Tibetan flag when Xi and his entourage arrived. Other activists from Students for a Free Tibet chanted “Murderer” at the Chinese leader, “Down with the CCP,” and “Human Rights in Tibet.”
At one point, a pro-Chinese protester carrying an American and Chinese flag in one hand and a bullhorn in the other drowned out the Tibetan activists’ voices.
An activist promoting democracy in Hong Kong displayed a bleeding wound in one tweet, along with a photo of menacing-looking men in surgical masks carrying long metal pipes. The activist complained that pro-Beijing forces were attacking her group outside the Hyatt Regency.
“Harassment and assault happening at the protest zone,” tweeted Anna Kwok, the executive director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, Wednesday night.
Kwok has a HK$1 million bounty on her head from the Hong Kong government for helping organize the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. While her Twitter accounts did not provide footage of the alleged attacks, she shared several messages threatening her life from pro-China social media accounts. One from an account that goes by @Chinaloverguy threatened to kidnap her, tie her up, and send her back to China.
“I do want the million dollar reward as i will first to tie you up with ropes then send you to a black market or simply send you back to HK myself,” the account warned.
Late Thursday afternoon, Kwok shared photos of her and several other Chinese pro-democracy activists meeting with Mark Lambert, the State Department’s China coordinator and deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. The meeting took place “just blocks” from the APEC summit.
“We’ll keep speaking up for our people and pushing for concrete action despite the transnational repression,” she tweeted.
Earlier Wednesday, Students for a Free Tibet complained on Twitter that it was “attacked” by 20 pro-Chinese counter-protesters in medical masks, whom the activists described as paid Chinese operatives. The alleged assaults occurred after the activists displayed an anti-Xi banner with the words, “Dictator Xi Jinping, Your Time is Up!” through openings in a garage structure. The activists said the group of pro-Chinese men in surgical masks grabbed the flag through openings on a lower level, pulling the banner and stealing it while nearly dragging the student activists over the ledge where they were holding onto and displaying the banner. Students for a Free Tibet also tweeted footage of a confrontation and scuffle when both groups converged in an elevator trying to leave the scene.
“This is the CCP. This is China. This is who APEC nations and the world are doing business with,” the group stated in the tweet.
In another episode of pro-China intimidation, several demonstrators in blue surgical masks carrying Chinese flags harassed a Uyghur woman toting a light-blue Turkmenistan flag now outlawed in China. Members of the pro-China contingent followed her closely, eventually enveloping her flag in a sea of larger Chinese flags.
Tibetan activist accounts identified the woman as Tursunay Ziyawudun, a Uyghur refugee now living in the United States who testified to Congress in 2022 that she had been raped and tortured by Chinese police in a “re-education” concentration camp. In her testimony, she detailed what she described as just one horrific episode in the CCP’s systematic targeting of young women for sexual abuse.
“Even in America, this is the reality of the CCP,” Students for a Free Tibet said in its tweet, referring to attempts by pro-Chinese counter-protesters to intimidate Ziyawudun.
Inside the summit’s lecture halls and ballrooms, there was a complete disconnect with the multiple anti-China protests taking place outside – and, at times, with reality. There was no mention of genocide or human rights abuses during Xi’s and Biden’s public remarks. Instead, Xi told the crowd he is ready to partner with America, and the world needs the two superpowers to work together.
“Whatever stage of development it may reach, China will never pursue hegemony or expansion and will never impose its will on others,” Xi said in remarks at the Wednesday night dinner. “China does not seek spheres of influence and will not fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone.”
At a press conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Biden made waves by saying that he still considers Xi a dictator despite progress in reducing tensions in their relationship. On Thursday, however, Biden focused mainly on the positive, pledging not to “decouple” from China, explaining that the U.S. is instead “de-risking and diversifying our economic relations” with Beijing.
“Stable relations between the world’s two largest economies is not merely good for the two economies, it’s good for the world – a stable relationship is good for everyone,” Biden said, without acknowledging that his own State Department has officially deemed Xi’s persecution of the Uyghurs as genocide and has repeatedly placed China on official human rights and religious freedom blacklists.
Business and trade analysts argue that Xi’s speech is unlikely to dramatically shift his approach to bilateral business and trade relations. As the economic and geopolitical rivalry has intensified over the last few years, China has grown more suspicious of U.S. companies, cracking down on American consultancy firms and damaging investor confidence.
The Biden administration’s decision not to use the opportunity to send a firm human rights message, along with Xi’s open embrace from top American business executives, has dimmed hopes among human rights groups that Xi will curb his brutal persecutions and arbitrary arrests.
Rep. Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on China, railed against Xi’s dinner with U.S. business executives.
Gallagher sent a letter on Monday to the dinner’s hosts, the U.S. China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, demanding a complete list of companies who paid to attend the gala.
“The U.S. business community needs to remove its golden blindfolds and realize that doing business with the CCP risks the safety of their employees, their shareholders, and the savings of millions of Americans,” Gallagher told Fox News Wednesday. “$40,000 may buy you a meal with Xi, but it can’t buy you a conscience.”
Other human rights leaders on Capitol Hill were also disappointed with the absence of any reference to China’s egregious human rights record during the summit’s official proceedings. Several members of Congress and advocacy organizations had pressed Biden to demand the release of three American citizens who have been held hostage in China for years before the two leaders met. At the very least, they wanted Biden to present to Xi a list of individuals the CCP has arbitrarily detained on false charges.
The timing of Biden’s meeting with Xi also coincided with several threats in Hong Kong against a group of U.S. lawmakers. Rep. John Curtis, a Utah Republican, was one of four members of Congress included in a Monday petition to Hong Kong’s High Court that would enable the territory’s law enforcement to arrest them if they travel to and are found in the city.
The others are Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, as well as Reps. Young Kim, a California Republican, and James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Curtis has introduced several Hong Kong-focused bills, including one that would implement sanctions on several top Hong Kong officials if international commissions determine they have violated international human rights laws.
The Utah congressman, who spent three years in Taiwan in the late 1970s, said he’s particularly distressed that San Francisco city officials didn’t provide greater free-speech protections for human rights protesters outside APEC.
“It’s an obvious attempt to intimidate, not just their own residents, but those of us who enjoy the freedoms we do here in the United States,” he told RealClearPolitics Thursday.
While Curtis agrees with Biden’s efforts to help thaw relations with China, he bristled at reports that American business executives gave Xi a standing ovation.
“I thought, they don’t know this man – they don’t know what he’s doing and all the atrocities that are happening in China.”