Obama told members of the Business Roundtable that Xi “taps into nationalism that worries his neighbours” and that his consolidation of power carries inherent dangers “on issues of human rights, on issues of clamping down on dissent”.
The US president said Xi “has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping”, referring to the Chinese leader who became “paramount leader” in the years following Mao Zedong’s death.
“Everybody’s been impressed by [Xi’s] clout inside of China after only a year and a half or two years.”
Obama added that Xi has expressed his desire for good relations with the US. “On the other hand, I think they have a very strong interest in maintaining good relations with the United States. And my visit was a demonstration of their interest in managing this relationship effectively,” he said.
The leaders met in Beijing in November, where they unveiled an ambitious joint initiative to curb climate change emissions.
But Obama’s remarks come at a time of tensions between the US and China over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China’s aggressive posturing towards American allies like Japan, and ongoing cybercrime and espionage. Obama said “it is indisputable that they engage in [cybercrime], and it is a problem. And we push them hard on it.”
The Hong Kong protests are a particularly sensitive issue between the US and China, which before this year had allowed the semi-autonomous city relatively unfettered elections. Chinese media sources have accused the US of fomenting dissent in Hong Kong, and American officials have largely steered clear of commenting on the protests, beyond calling for restraint in the police response.
But on Wednesday Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for east Asia, made the strongest entreaty yet for changes from Beijing by calling for “competitive” elections in Hong Kong. Speaking before a Senate committee, he denied any US interference in Chinese affairs but said that the “two systems” model that governed Hong Kong and gave its people more freedoms was “eroding”.
Beijing announced in September that it would vet all candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections, a decision that provoked mass protests in Hong Kong, which have lasted for weeks and flared into violent scrums of pro-democracy students, riot police and pro-government protesters.
Russel said China should let Hong Kong make its own “meaningful choice” of candidates: “This means allowing for a competitive election in which a range of candidates with differing policy approaches are given an opportunity to seek the support of eligible Hong Kong voters.”
Three leaders of the protests surrendered themselves to police on Wednesday after declaring their intention to confess to the crime of “unauthorised assembly”. Law professor Benny Tai, the Rev Chu Yiu-ming and sociologist Chan Kin-man called for the tens of thousands of students still in the streets to peacefully retreat.
Marie Harf, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said the US viewed the leaders’ surrender favourably insofar as it supports “anything that helps” peaceful resolution. “We believe there should be opportunities for peaceful protest,” she said, adding that the US urged “restraint on the government side”, but declined to comment on the human rights implications of the weeks of arrests.
US officials have shied away from criticising China too harshly since the protests began, instead encouraging both the right to protest and self-control on the part of the authorities. During Wednesday’s Senate hearing, Senator Marco Rubio said “realpolitik” thinking about China’s economic muscle guided the Obama administration “because we don’t want to ruin our relationship with the Chinese”.Source: Guardian – Xi Jinping’s rise in China threatens rights and worries neighbours, Obama warns
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