President Joe Biden's climate envoy John Kerry criticized Biden's description of Chinese President Xi Jinping as a "dictator" during congressional testimony on Thursday, saying the Biden administration shouldn't get "tangled up in labels and names."
Kerry's comments come ahead of his visit to Beijing next week to discuss climate change issues. The former secretary of state who now serves as the first ever special presidential envoy for climate also told Congress that China's human rights violations shouldn't be "showstoppers" that hinder climate negotiations.
When Kerry was asked by Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) if he agreed with Biden's recent statement that Xi was a dictator, Kerry declined to say but conceded that Xi "wields enormous power as the leader of China."
"Frankly, all of that is water off a duck's back, and I don't think we ought to get tangled up in labels and names," said Kerry during the hearing for the House Foreign Affairs Committee's oversight and responsibility subcommittee.
Biden has stood by his description of Xi as a "dictator," a comment that sent Beijing into a fury last month, with the Chinese embassy denouncing it as "political provocation against China’s top leader."
Kerry has advocated for soft treatment of China by overlooking its human rights violations. He supports increased imports of solar panels, an industry linked to China's Uyghur slave labor. He said the Biden administration plans to keep human rights issues separate from his climate meetings in Beijing. The climate envoy appeared to stand by his comments to Congress two years ago, when he said he didn't believe human rights issues should have a role in climate negotiations because life is "full of tough choices."
"That doesn't mean we don't talk about them, but it means that they're not going to become showstoppers," Kerry said Thursday.
Kerry got into a testy exchange with Republican congressman Scott Perry (Pa.), who accused the climate envoy of "grifting" by exaggerating the threat of climate change.
When Kerry claimed all world leaders agreed with his views on climate change, Perry shot back, "because they're grifting like you, sir." The comment drew disapproving murmurs from Democratic committee members.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Tex.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pressed Kerry over China's self-declaration that it is a "developing nation," which has allowed Beijing to avoid the same tough carbon emissions reduction policies agreed to by the United States.
"How in the world can the second largest economy maintain to you and the rest of the world, with a straight face, that they're a developing nation, giving them preferential treatment?" asked McCaul. "The American people understand fairness, and honestly they do not see this as fair."
Kerry agreed with McCaul but said there was no chance that China would agree to drop its "developing nation" status during his upcoming visit.
"That's not going to happen in this visit," he said. "It's just not going to happen."