BEIJING -- Vice President Joe Biden opened a two-day visit to China Wednesday by urging young Chinese students to challenge their government, teachers and religious leaders.
Arriving midday in Beijing, Biden paid a visit to the U.S. Embassy, where he surprised Chinese citizens waiting to get visitor visas processed in the embassy's consular section. Thanking a group of mostly young people for wanting to visit the U.S., Biden said he hoped they would learn during their visit that "innovation can only occur where you can breathe free."
"Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo," Biden said. "The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old."
The vice president seemed to be alluding to the authoritarian rule of China's government as he described a liberal and permissive intellectual culture in the United States.
"I hope you observe it when you're there," said Biden, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. "From the beginning of our country, it's a constant stream of new immigrants, new cultures, new ideas, new religions, brand new people continuing to reinvigorate the spirit of America."
Biden also offered measured praise for China's educational system, a day after results from a global exam showed American students once again lagging behind many of their Asian and European peers. Students in Shanghai, China's largest city, had the top scores in all subjects on that exam.
"Even though some countries' educational systems are better than America's — particularly in grade school — there is one thing that's stamped in the DNA of every American, whether they are naturalized citizens or natural-born," Biden said. "It's an inherent rejection of orthodoxy."
Similar comments from Biden in the past have created a stir. When Biden in May told students at the University of Pennsylvania that you can't think differently in a nation where you can't breathe free, Chinese students said they were offended and requested an apology.
Biden's visit comes at a tense moment for the U.S. and China, who are at odds over Beijing's recent insistence that pilots flying through airspace over a set of disputed islands file flight plans with China's government. On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden said the U.S. was deeply concerned by the action and said it increased the prospects for an accident, pledging to raise the issue directly when he meets Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jingping.
Stepping onto Chinese soil earlier Wednesday after his flight from Tokyo, Biden was met by a Chinese military honor guard before being whisked to the U.S. Embassy to highlight efforts to reduce visa processing times for Chinese visitors to the U.S. After an official welcome ceremony later at the Great Hall of the People, Biden was to meet with Vice President Li Yuanchao before his evening session with Xi.
Before departing China on Thursday, Biden will have breakfast with American business leaders and meet with China's premier, Li Keqiang. The vice president will then fly to Seoul, South Korea, for the final leg of his trip.