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Biden treads lightly in response to COVID protests in China

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President Biden is closely watching rare protests across China but the White House has been cautious about expressing support for those speaking out against the Chinese government, which has moved quickly to stifle dissent. 
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday “we’ve been very clear people have a right to protest without fear,” but would not comment on any efforts by the U.S. to support or help Chinese citizens protesting against COVID-19 lockdowns. 
Other Biden administration officials have also held back explicit criticism of Beijing’s Zero-COVID policy that has sparked the outrage. 
“So we’ve said… a lockdown is not a policy that we support here,” National Security Spokesperson John Kirby told reporters this week. “But, obviously, there are people in China that have concerns about that. And they’re protesting that, and we believe they should be able to do that peacefully.” 
The protests come as Biden is seeking to stabilize relations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with the two leaders meeting face-to-face for the first time earlier this month to calm unprecedented tensions, and as the administration has identified the Chinese Communist Party as the greatest strategic challenge facing the U.S.
Statements of support for the protesters also risk playing into a narrative that foreign influences are stoking the protests.  
Allegations and insinuations of U.S. or foreign interference fomenting the protests have spread among “public propagandists,” said Matt Schrader, an advisor on China at the International Republican Institute and who spent 10 years living in Beijing. Chinese officials have yet to directly accuse protesters of colluding with foreign forces. 
“That’s item number one in the playbook for the party on these sorts of things,” Schrader said, “is to blame outside agitators as a way of discrediting the grievances of the protesters and discounting the notion that the protests have anything to do with dissatisfaction with its rule.”
The protests – breaking out in pockets nationwide – erupted over the weekend in opposition to Beijing’s strict lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the demonstrations have, at times, reportedly broken out in calls for democracy and against the censorship of the Chinese Communist Party and the rule of Xi. 
Chinese authorities have responded swiftly and at times violently to suppress gatherings that outside observers estimate have amounted to a few hundred people. 
“I don’t think the regime’s in any real danger from this,” Schrader said. “That’s really a testament to how hardened the regime is against this kind of stuff, that, basically the first major wave of nationwide protests that we’ve seen in the past decade are not that big and are not that much of a threat to regime security.

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