Vice President Joe Biden once told Chinese President Xi Jinping that U.S. leaders only support human rights as a matter of political optics, and that this makes the United States no better than China, according to a new New Yorker profile of Jinping.
The New Yorker relates encounters between Biden and Jinping in 2011 and 2012, when both were vice presidents of their respective nations:
Biden told me that Xi asked him why the U.S. put "so much emphasis on human rights." Biden replied to Xi, "No President of the United States could represent the United States were he not committed to human rights," and went on, "If you don’t understand this, you can’t deal with us. President Barack Obama would not be able to stay in power if he did not speak of it. So look at it as a political imperative. It doesn’t make us better or worse. It’s who we are. You make your decisions. We’ll make ours."
The Wall Street Journal editorial board noted that Jinping has severely punished political dissent, becoming China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao Zedong:
Mr. Xi took the advice. Since taking office he has detained more than 1,000 political prisoners, from anticorruption activist Xu Zhiyong to lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and journalist Gao Yu. He has cracked down on Uighurs in Xinjiang, banning more Muslim practices and jailing scholar-activist Ilham Tohti for life. Anti-Christian repression and Internet controls are tightening. Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo remains in prison, his wife Liu Xia under illegal house arrest for the fifth year. Lawyer Gao Zhisheng left prison in August but is blocked from receiving medical care overseas. Hong Kong, China’s most liberal city, is losing its press freedom and political autonomy.
Amid all of this Mr. Xi and his government have faced little challenge from Washington. That is consistent with Hillary Clinton’s 2009 statement that human rights can’t be allowed to "interfere" with diplomacy on issues such as the economy and the environment. Mr. Obama tried walking that back months later, telling the United Nations that democracy and human rights aren’t "afterthoughts." But his Administration’s record—and now Mr. Biden’s testimony—prove otherwise.