Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 23 October 2020


Top White House Official Criticizes ‘Totalitarian’ Xi in Chinese

Peter Martin
  • Mandarin-speaking Pottinger attacks Xi’s ‘totalitarianism’
  • Speech reflects U.S.-China tensions at highest in a decade
Matthew Pottinger has warned democratic nations not to shy away from criticizing Beijing and its leader, Xi Jinping.
Matthew Pottinger has warned democratic nations not to shy away from criticizing Beijing and its leader, Xi Jinping. Photographer: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A senior White House official delivered a speech in Mandarin attacking Xi Jinping’s “totalitarianism” and calling on the Chinese people to research the “truth” about the country’s oppression of Uighur Muslims.

The remarks by Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, to the Policy Exchange think tank in London, are likely to be seen as a deliberate provocation by the Chinese government, which closely controls the information that reaches its citizens through censorship of the Internet and media outlets.

Pottinger, a former journalist who was based in China, urged his audience to meet President Xi Jinping’s “technologically-enhanced totalitarianism” with “reciprocity and candor,” warning democratic nations not to shy away from criticizing Beijing. “By portraying truth-telling as an act of belligerence, autocrats try to badger democracies into silence,” he said.

Tensions between China and the West are at their highest in decades over issues including Beijing’s hacking and control of key technologies, handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, tightening grip over Hong Kong and treatment of Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region.

Pottinger spoke at length about the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to collect data on citizens around the world, as well as its efforts to influence politics of democratic societies. He warned of the “party’s sheer ambition to wed traditional Leninist techniques with powerful new tools of digital surveillance,” adding that even children are “fair game under Beijing’s rules of political warfare.”

He also said that there was no justification for China’s use of detention centers in Xinjiang, calling them “concentration camps” and urging Chinese citizens to research the truth about the Communist Party’s policies there. China has denied human rights abuses in the region and says that the centers are used to provide vocational training.

Jordan Schneider, an adjunct fellow at the Center for New American Security’s Technology and National Security Program, said the speech’s impact may be muted inside China.

“Xi has very broad-based support across all levels of Chinese society,” Schneider said.

Still, the speech is emblematic of the strained ties between the world’s two largest economies. Pottinger said that a second-term Trump administration would “build on the dynamics” now in place in the relationship, without providing more details.

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