With major street protests erupting in Iran and China in recent weeks, U.S. President Joe Biden's administration is facing questions about its response to the unrest roiling two of the most significant U.S. adversaries.
To date, the administration's responses to events in both China and Iran have been mostly measured, though distinct.
In the case of Iran, where months of protests followed the death in police custody of a young woman accused of not wearing a headscarf appropriately, the president himself has criticized Tehran's policies. As early as October, he said that women 'should be able to wear, in God's name, what they want to wear' and 'Iran has to end the violence against its own citizens [for] simply exercising their fundamental rights.'
With regard to China, where the protests have primarily focused on the government's draconian lockdown procedures related to its 'zero-COVID' policy, the administration has been very careful to say that it supports peoples' right to peacefully protest. However, it has not echoed demands by some of the protesters that leaders step down.
In recent remarks, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby said of the events in China, '[O]ur message to peaceful protesters around the world is the same and consistent: People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with.'
Response to China criticized as 'weak'
There are reasons the United States might be more hesitant to directly confront the Chinese government over its COVID policies. China is one of the largest economies in the world, and the Biden administration has been working to shore up a relationship badly damaged by trade disputes and security concerns. Iran, by contrast, remains economically crippled by sanctions, and is not nearly as important a player on the international stage as China.
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However, that has not stopped Republicans in Washington from characterizing the administration's response as 'weak,' particularly with regard to China.
In a statement released Monday, for example, Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Chris Smith, both Republicans, said, 'The Biden Administration's weak rejection of the [Chinese Communist Party's] zero-Covid policy and refusal to call out [Chinese President Xi Jinping's] totalitarian grip is nothing short of cowardly. Just weeks after shaking hands with Xi in Bali, President Biden and his administration have once again demonstrated that they are unwilling to stand up to the CCP and stand in solidarity with the Chinese people.'
Experts in public diplomacy also told VOA they were concerned that the administration is missing an opportunity by failing to more aggressively condemn China's lockdown policies and the strain it has placed on many of the Chinese people.
Ash Jain, director for democratic order at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Strategy Initiative, said that the administration's measured tone with regard to China 'reflects a keen interest in keeping the lines of engagement open with Beijing.'
Jain said, 'I do think there's a case to be made that the administration could be even more forward leaning in terms of rhetoric.' He added, 'U.S. leaders are in a good position when they speak out clearly and forcefully about support for a values-based foreign policy, for supporting democracy and human rights. And that message is even better when it comes directly from the president.'
Speaking truth to power
Ilan I. Berman, a senior vice president and director of the Future of Public Diplomacy Project at the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), said there is an argument to be made that the administration can't achieve much by upping the rhetoric against China.
'In the context of China, you could make the case, as some in the administration do, both publicly and privately, that moral support for the protesters is well and good, but there's really nothing material right now that the U.S. can do to move the needle, to strengthen the protests, to make the regime in Beijing more rickety,' he told VOA.
However, he added, there are other reasons to support more forceful rhetoric.
'We are in a systems clash with the People's Republic of China. It's a clash of values. ... If that's the case, if that's the frame and the lens through which we're looking at what's happening on the ground, in the PRC, then frankly, we have a duty to draw contrast, to explain to the world and to the Chinese people, the differences between the two models, and why the safe bet is ours and not theirs.'
Playing into regimes' hands
Some have argued that the Biden administration is wise to limit its comments in support of protesters in both China and Iran, because leaders in Beijing and Tehran are already eager to try to characterize the protests as the product of foreign - particularly American - interference.
In a recent interview with Reuters, Scott Kennedy, senior adviser and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, 'The White House is wise to refrain from speaking out in defense of the protesters and their demands ... China has long asserted the U.S. government has been behind domestic protests, from Tiananmen in 1989 to Hong Kong in 2020. Saying anything now would give life to those assertions.'
Berman, of AFPC, said he doubted that the level of U.S. rhetoric would have much impact on efforts to blame outside forces for protests, whether in China or Iran.
'Both regimes, actually, are making those arguments already,' he said. 'There's nothing to stop them from styling the protests, whether the ones in Tehran or the ones in Beijing, as being a CIA plot, as being orchestrated by the United States. That they can do, independent of anything that we do to show support for the protesters.'
While stressing what he saw as the importance of the U.S. taking a clear stand on the protests in both countries, the Atlantic Council's Jain said it is also important to remain clear-eyed about how much U.S. rhetoric can really accomplish right now.
'In terms of making a difference on the ground, it's hard to see how that would change the dynamic,' he said. 'You're talking about regimes that have just years and years of experience in utilizing repressive tactics to prevent these movements from presenting any real threat to the regime.'