January 27
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The Biden administration is reacting cautiously to protests over the weekend across China, in part reflecting the U.S. desire to stabilize a vital but increasingly hostile relationship with Beijing, Politico reports. 

President Joe Biden, who met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G-20 this month in an effort to ease tensions, made no statement regarding the protests.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also declined to comment.

However, in response to questions from reporters, a spokesman for the National Security Council made slightly critical comments, focusing mainly on what appears to have spurred the protests: anger over China's zero covid policy China, which has led to severe lockdowns and which many protesters blame for the deaths of several people in a fire in Xinjiang province.

“As we’ve said, we think it’s going to be very difficult for the People’s Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero Covid strategy,” the spokesperson said in the statement, adding that measures such as boosting vaccination rates were more useful. “We’ve long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes in the PRC.”

At a White House press briefing later that day, NSC communications strategist John Kirby said Biden had been briefed on events in China. Kirby added that Biden had warned that the world's democracies face challenges from autocratic movements, but he refused to go beyond the NSC's comment that the U.S. supports the right to peaceful protest.

Biden's aides are well aware that protests can be unpredictable. Protests in China are not unusual, but they are often limited in scale and location, and the Chinese Communist Party tends to quickly suppress anything it perceives as a serious challenge to its power.

A U.S. official familiar with the matter, who, like others in this article, spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to discuss internal discussions, said that the Biden administration should have considered a number of factors in deciding how to respond to these protests. For example, a harsh U.S. statement could cause the Chinese government to turn its attention to the United States and accuse it of foreign interference, rather than respond to the protesters' discontent. 

Nevertheless, U.S. government officials are closely monitoring developments in China - including how the government treats journalists covering the protests - and have regular interagency discussions about how to respond, a U.S. official said.

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