Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the Biden administration supports the zero-COVID protesters in China, explaining that he will address the topic when he visits the country early next year.
“Of course, we do,” Blinken told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” when asked about the US support for the protesters demonstrating against the Chinese government’s stringent Covid-19 restrictions. “We support the right for people everywhere, whether it’s in China, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s any place else, to protest peacefully, to make known their views, to vent their frustrations.”
Blinken said he would bring up the protests with Chinese officials in person next month.
“We will say what we always say and what President (Joe) Biden has said to (Chinese leader) Xi Jinping, which is that human rights and basic civil liberties go to the heart of who we are as Americans. And no American government, no American president is going to be silent on that,” Blinken said.
The demonstrations in China were triggered by a deadly fire on November 24 in Urumqi, the capital of the far western region of Xinjiang. The blaze killed at least 10 people and injured nine in an apartment building – leading to public fury after videos of the incident appeared to show lockdown measures had delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
The city had been under lockdown for more than 100 days, with residents unable to leave the region and many forced to stay home.
As the protest numbers have swelled, many are also demanding greater political freedoms – and some have even called for Xi’s removal.
Protests on such a large scale are highly unusual in China. While demonstrations over local grievances occur periodically, the protests are the most widespread since the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement of 1989.
The Chinese government has cracked down swiftly, deploying police at key protest sites, calling protesters to warn them and tightening online censorship.
Blinken said Sunday that the US would take the same approach when the rights of protesters are repressed anywhere else: “We speak out against it, we stand up against it, and we take action against it.”
Demonstrations have rocked Iran for several months, sparking a deadly clampdown from authorities. The nationwide uprising was first ignited by the death of Mahsa (also known as Zhina) Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in mid-September after being detained by the country’s morality police. Since then, protesters across Iran have coalesced around a range of grievances with the Iranian government.
Iranian Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said Thursday that Iran’s parliament and judiciary are reviewing the country’s mandatory hijab law, according to pro-reform outlet Entekhab.
Montazeri was also quoted as saying that Iran’s feared morality police had been “abolished,” but Iranian state media strongly pushed back on those comments, saying the interior ministry oversees the force, not the judiciary.
In an interview with CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Blinken wouldn’t say if the US believes that a move to abolish the morality police would end the protests in the country.
“That’s up to the Iranian people. This is about that. It’s not about us. And what we’ve seen since the killing of Mahsa Amini has been the extraordinary courage of Iranian young people, especially women, who’ve been leading these protests, standing up for the right to be able to say what they want to say, wear what they want to wear,” Blinken said.
In his interview with Tapper, Blinken pointed to US sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown on protesters in Iran, but he did not mention any cost that has been imposed on China for its crackdown on protests.
Blinken said that “fundamentally” the protests in China and Iran were not about the US.
“This is about people in both countries trying to express their views, trying to have their aspirations met, and the response that the governments are taking to that,” he said.
CNN’s Jessie Yeung, Tara Subramaniam and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this report.