Why America Tiptoes Around the Protests in China, Iran

While it may have geostrategic reasons to be cautious about supporting a budding uprising against Xi, America has no excuse for so timidly backing the Iranian rebellion.

Hengaw Organization for Human Rights video still via AP
A protester reacts after a water container is hit by a bullet during a protest at Javanroud, a Kurdish town in western Iran, November 21, 2022. Hengaw Organization for Human Rights video still via AP

Two regimes born in revolution are facing serious rebellions and by right America should fully support both. Yet while confronting the too-big-to-fail communists of China would be risky for Washington, there is no downside to backing the popular revolution against the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

“Down with Xi” and “Khamenei must go” chants are increasingly reverberating in China and Iran, respectively. President Biden at least pays lip service to the supreme leader’s violations of human rights in Iran, even while he is all but mum about Chinese protests against President Xi’s “zero Covid” policy. 

“The president is not going to speak for protesters around the world,” the national security council’s spokesman, John Kirby, said. “They’re speaking for themselves.” Mr. Biden has yet to address the uprising that has erupted in the last few days in reaction to long-term incarceration of Chinese city dwellers under the guise of combatting Covid.

Critics are taking note. “From the White House podium, we were told that President Biden would not speak for pro-democracy protesters in China. House Republicans will,” a New York representative on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Claudia Tenney, tweeted today. 

After a Biden-Xi powwow two weeks ago at Bali, Indonesia, the two leaders agreed that competition between their countries “should not veer into conflict,” according to a White House readout. America and Red China “must manage the competition responsibly and maintain open lines of communication,” it added. 

Such “competition” aside, America is far from severing economic ties with its largest trading partner. At the lowest recent point, in February 2021, two-way trade with China stood at nearly $44 billion. Last month it rose to more than $61 billion, albeit with quite lopsided totals: America exported nearly $12 billion to the communist country, while imports soared to $50 billion. 

Early on during the Covid pandemic, commentators started warning of relying too heavily on Red China for manufacturing, especially when it comes to pharmaceutical products. Yet, America still imports from our fiercest foe everything from T-shirts to the minerals that fuel most of our high-tech devices. 

The Islamic Republic, on the other hand, has long been under American-imposed sanctions. Even though Mr. Biden eased sanction enforcement and tried in vain to revive the sanction-removing 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Islamic Republic’s leadership has made clear it would rather have nuclear weapons than trade with the West. 

No wonder Mr. Biden, in a moment of clarity, blurted out, “Don’t worry, we’re gonna free Iran. They’re gonna free themselves pretty soon.” The White House tried to walk back the comment, only to see top Washington officials amp up criticism of Iranian human rights violations following Tehran’s arms sales to Russia. Yet, they shy from fully backing the Iranian protesters’ demands for regime change. 

“The West is finally waking up to the real problem in Iran,” a Brooklyn-based leader of the Iranian revolution, Masih Alinejad, writes in the Washington Post. America, she notes, is “something of a laggard” behind the likes of President Macron of France and others. “President Biden still hasn’t made a strong and decisive public statement in favor of the protesters,” she writes.

Yet, the American public increasingly sides with those who want to overthrow the Khomeinist regime. Sensing that sentiment, high-profile entrepreneur Elon Musk recently offered his Starlink system to Iranian protesters, after the regime attempted to cut off their access to the internet. Other corporate types are awakening to the cause as well. 

On the other hand, Mr. Musk’s Tesla automobiles are largely manufactured in China, so siding with anti-Xi protesters could prove much trickier. Most recently Mr. Musk signaled readiness to throw an American ally under Mr. Xi’s bus, tweeting that he favored a “special administrative zone” for Taiwan that could be “more lenient than Hong Kong.”

Undue deference to, and at times downright sympathy for Beijing runs across America’s corporate world. Tim Cook’s Apple is limiting the use of its iPhone airdrop system in China, where it was being utilized by protesters. Apple fears a delay in product deliveries after employees walked off the job at its iPhone plant at Zhengzhou. 

The Chinese protest movement erupted in recent days as a pushback against Mr. Xi’s strict zero-Covid policy, which has shut down entire cities. Citizens are held under house arrest or sent to prison-like isolation facilities, and pent-up anger has erupted across the country, including calls for an end to Mr. Xi’s hold on power. 

The new Iranian revolution, meanwhile, is more than three months old, and is fueled by frustrations built up since the Khomeinists rose to power in 1979. The Islamic Republic regime has been much less effective than its Communist counterpart at shutting down the insurrection. 

While America may have geostrategic reasons to be cautious about supporting a budding uprising against the nuclear-armed economic powerhouse under Mr. Xi, it has no excuse for so timidly backing Iranians who seek to end the oppression of their Islamic regime. 


Benny Avni is a columnist who has published in the New York Post, WSJOpinion, The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Israel Radio, Ha’Aretz, and others. Once New York Sun, always New York Sun.

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