WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s aides have asked that Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, stop posting messages on social media taunting Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to three administration officials.
Officials at the National Security Council told Emanuel's staff in recent days that his comments risk undermining the administration’s efforts to mend deeply strained relations with China, including with a possible meeting this fall between Biden and Xi, according to the officials.
Over the past two weeks Emanuel, who served as White House chief of staff to former President Barack Obama, has criticized Xi directly and sarcastically speculated about the Chinese leader’s treatment of his top aides, using the hashtag “#MysteryInBeijingBuilding.”
Emanuel’s tweets are “not in keeping with the message coming out of this building,” a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Biden struck a conciliatory tone when it comes to America’s rivalry with China. The U.S., he said, is “ready to work together with China on issues where progress hinges on our common efforts.”
"We seek to responsibly manage the competition between our countries so it does not tip into conflict," Biden added.
It was a markedly different message than the one Emanuel has recently conveyed publicly. “President Xi’s cabinet lineup is now resembling Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None,” the ambassador wrote on Sept. 7 on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, referring to the disappearance of China’s foreign minister earlier this year and more recently its defense minister. “Who’s going to win this unemployment race? China’s youth or Xi’s cabinet?”
The administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said China has been furious about Emanuel’s posts.
Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., said in response to Emanuel's criticisms that "at a time of partisan bickering and unattended domestic social issues, seeking limelight for oneself is good for nothing. Shifting attention brings no useful solution. It is better to act in a way that fits one’s official capacity."
A spokesperson for Emanuel disputed NBC News’ report, calling it “absolutely not true.”
“Ambassador Emanuel is serving with distinction as an uncommonly effective representative of the United States in Japan. Every day his inventiveness, passion and relentlessness are on full display,” Kurt Campbell, deputy assistant to the president and coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, said in an interview.
He continued, “This guy is a superstar and when you put Rahm on the field you get the full Rahm.”
Campbell did not comment when asked whether Emanuel will continue posting about China’s leadership.
Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has not been seen in public since Aug. 29, and last week reports surfaced that he’s under investigation in China. The mystery of Li’s whereabouts follows a similar disappearance in June of China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, who was subsequently replaced.
Some administration officials have been upset with Emanuel’s comments, according to the officials and a former official familiar with the matter. But one administration official described the sentiment more as annoyance and said Emanuel is still a valued part of the team.
A longtime, outspoken Democratic operative, Emanuel served in Congress and left the chief of staff job in 2010 to mount a successful campaign for mayor of Chicago. Emanuel knows Biden and his top aides well, and some of them worked for Emanuel at a different point in their careers.
He was confirmed as ambassador to Japan in December 2021, a role he’s heartily embraced. Emanuel is prolific on social media and gets regular media attention in Japan. He also played a leading role during Biden’s recent visits to Japan.
A second administration official said for Emanuel to make these comments makes no sense and does not advance U.S. strategic goals with China or with the Asia-Pacific region.
“It just fights what we are doing there in the region,” the official said, explaining that the U.S. realizes it needs to maintain some relationship with China, especially an economic one, and social media postings like Emanuel’s do not “further U.S. goals.”
One former Biden administration official said Emanuel’s message on China “runs completely counter” to the goals his administration is trying to achieve with Beijing. “They’re trying to calm things down and to have the ambassador to Japan attack the Chinese? It’s stupid,” the former official said.
Japan, a close U.S. ally, is among the Asia-Pacific nations that have been uneasy about China’s dominance — particularly militarily — in the region.
Those concerns about China’s increasing aggression, including potentially toward Taiwan, are shared by the Biden administration. But for months the White House has sought to engage China and get relations in a more stable position since they hit a nadir in February after the Pentagon shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had traveled over the U.S.
White House officials who’ve worked to mend those ties worry that publicly taunting and embarrassing Xi could unwind that progress, officials said. Emanuel, however, has not held back.
“Xi’s playbook is clear: shamelessly exploit human tragedies for political gain without any regard for the lives lost,” he wrote on X on Sept. 12.
“Xi’s team is using A.I. to spread false claims that U.S. ‘weather weapons’ caused the Maui wildfire, blaming the U.S. Army for bringing COVID to China, and spreading disinformation about Fukushima. Imagine a world where that energy was channeled into humanitarian aid and genuine concern for the global good. Like focusing on how to get the great Chinese youth back to full employment. Now that would be novel!!!”
Emanuel’s most recent disparaging post about China came just as Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was set to secretly meet with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi for two days of talks in Malta.
Sullivan’s discussions are seen as laying the groundwork for a meeting between Biden and Xi, possibly in November around the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, summit in San Francisco. The two leaders have not met in nearly a year, and China only this summer began receiving high-level delegations of U.S. officials. It is not clear whether Xi will attend the APEC summit.
Emanuel’s last post about Xi likened the disappearance of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu to the Shakespearean play “Hamlet”: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” he wrote Thursday.