WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. officials said Wednesday that they were caught off guard when President Joe Biden described Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “dictator” — just 24 hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing and appeared to reach a breakthrough in tense relations between the countries.
Officials privately sought to clarify Wednesday with the Chinese that Biden’s description of Xi does not reflect a new talking point or official policy shift by the administration. Officials said they don’t expect the controversy to be a major setback to the progress Blinken made during his China trip.
“It should come as no surprise that the president speaks candidly about China and the differences that we have — we are certainly not alone in that,” one senior administration official said Wednesday. “The president believes that diplomacy, including that undertaken by Secretary Blinken, is the responsible way to manage tensions. Secretary Blinken had a good trip and made some progress. We have every expectation of building on that progress.”
During a campaign fundraiser in California on Tuesday night, Biden said Xi “got very upset” when the U.S. military shot down a Chinese spy balloon that he didn’t know was flying across the U.S. “That was the great embarrassment for dictators, when they didn’t know what happened,” Biden added. He then continued to say Xi didn’t know the balloon had been over the continental U.S. after it was blown off course near Alaska.
China responded angrily that Biden’s comments were “extremely absurd” and “irresponsible.”
Blinken, who met with Xi on Monday, was seen as having made progress on restoring diplomatic and economic communications between the U.S. and China, though he was rebuffed on efforts to re-establish dialogue between the two countries' military leaders.
A second senior administration official said Wednesday that Blinken is accustomed to the president making remarks that cause a stir and is not upset. The official indicated that the Chinese were well aware from their lengthy talks with Blinken that the U.S. would still disagree with them on some issues but that the two superpowers still need to work with each other where they can.
The official predicted China is “probably more angry about Biden saying Xi is not all-powerful and didn’t know what was going on with the balloon.”
Evident that the remarks by Biden were not planned, officials offered various takes on the remarks.
A third senior U.S. official played down Biden’s remark, saying he was making a comment about dictators generally, not calling the Chinese leader one specifically. But another official said it was clear the president was calling Xi a dictator.
There were no news cameras or audio recordings allowed inside the fundraiser, which was held in a wealthy San Francisco suburb. Only a handful of reporters were allowed inside to take notes. The White House also produced a transcript of the president’s remarks, as it does for all campaign fundraisers.
Biden tends to speak more freely at closed-door affairs with well-heeled Democratic donors than he does in front of the cameras. During a fundraiser in Los Angeles last fall, Biden ominously warned of “Armageddon” if Russian President Vladimir Putin used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine.
On other occasions, Biden has chosen to publicly speak his mind on sensitive foreign policy matters in a way that is at odds with his administration’s official policy even when the eyes of the world are on him. Biden has said multiple times that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China made a move on Taiwan, for instance, only for his aides to clarify that his comments did not represent a change in longtime U.S. policy. And at the end of a speech in Poland on the war in Ukraine, Biden said of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Administration officials swiftly moved to clarify that his off-the-cuff remark did not mark an official change in U.S. support for regime change in Russia.
The presidential walk-back is a narrative Biden’s top aides — and the president himself — loathe, officials have said. It’s a delicate effort to balance sensitive diplomatic concerns with a loquacious boss who speaks his mind and has resulted in some deep parsing of the president’s language.
But Biden’s comments didn’t create a firestorm of criticism from Republicans in Congress, who have often argued that the president is not tough enough on China. Instead, some Republican lawmakers encouraged Biden to embrace his comments.
“Biden is right: Xi is a dictator, and we should treat him as such,” House Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas said in a statement. “This administration needs to stop accommodating Beijing, and needs to start moving forward competitive actions.”
Asked if he agrees with Biden’s assessment that Xi is a dictator, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said: “Well, look, I’d say he has many, many autocratic tendencies. They are not an open and full-fledged democracy to say the least.”
But Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican and former governor of New Jersey who endorsed Biden in the 2020 presidential race, said she was “puzzled” by his remarks.
“Was he not thinking and just said that because that’s what he believes, and he sort of forgot that what he’s been about is trying to ease tensions?” Whitman said in an interview. “It was bizarre to me, frankly, and that’s the kind of thing I’ll be watching. If there’s more of that, then we have to have real concerns.”
For now, administration officials said they hope that this controversy passes quickly and that Beijing’s economic concerns don’t allow it to derail plans for visits from the U.S. treasury and commerce secretaries.
But the person who may have been surprised the least by Biden's comments was Xi himself, said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank.
“Xi knows how President Biden feels about him,” said Stokes, who was an adviser to Biden on Asia policy when he was vice president. “There’s some crocodile tears about this comment from China.”