Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the Biden administration supports zero-COVID protesters in China, explaining that he will address the issue 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 U.S. support for the protesters demonstrating against the Chinese government’s strict Covid-19 restrictions. “We support the right of people everywhere, whether it’s in China, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s anywhere else, to protest peacefully, to express their views, to vent their frustrations.”
Blinken said he would raise 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 shut up about it,” Blinken said.
The demonstrations in China were sparked by a deadly fire on November 24 in Urumqi, the capital of the western region of Xinjiang. The fire killed at least 10 people and injured nine in an apartment building – prompting public outrage after videos of the incident appeared to show that lockdown measures had delayed firefighters from reaching the victims.
The city had been on lockdown for more than 100 days, with residents unable to leave the region and many forced to stay at home.
As the number of protests has grown, 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 pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
The Chinese government has cracked down swiftly, deploying police at key protest sites, urging protesters to warn them and tightening online censorship.
Blinken said Sunday that the United States will take the same approach when protesters’ rights are suppressed elsewhere: “We speak out against it, we stand up against it, and we take action against it.”
Demonstrations have rocked Iran for months, triggering a deadly crackdown by 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 rallied around a series of grievances with the Iranian government.
Iranian Justice Minister Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said Thursday that Iran’s parliament and judiciary are revising the country’s mandatory hijab law, according to pro-reform Entekhab magazine.
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 would not say whether the United States believes that a move to abolish the morality police would end the protests in the country.
“It’s up to the Iranian people. It’s 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 have been at the forefront for these protests standing up for the right to be able to say what they want to say, wear what they want to wear,” said Blinken.
In his interview with Tapper, Blinken pointed to US sanctions against those responsible for the crackdown on protesters in Iran, but he did not mention any costs that have been imposed on China for its crackdown on protests.
Blinken said that “fundamentally” the protests in China and Iran were not about the United States.
“This is about people in both countries trying to express their views, trying to have their aspirations met, and the response that governments take to that,” he said.