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Biden Championed Close China Ties and Then Xi Came Along

It’s been a long journey from collaboration to confrontation for the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.

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Photo illustration by 731; Photo: Getty Images

Way back in late February, when the U.S. still hadn’t seen a death from Covid-19 and Joe Biden’s campaign for the White House was hanging by a thread, the former vice president made a remark that could prove consequential in shaping global events over the next five years. “I spent more time with Xi Jinping than any world leader had by the time we left office,” Biden said on the debate stage in South Carolina. “This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic-with-a-small-‘d’ bone in his body. This is a guy who is a thug.”

Candidates’ statements aren’t necessarily a guide to how they’ll act in office, but the line now stands out coming from the presumptive Democratic nominee. For one thing, Biden really does know Xi better than anyone else in U.S. politics. The two spent extensive time together on several occasions beginning in 2011, when Xi was his own country’s second- in-command. Biden would also know that the Chinese government views personal attacks on top leaders as taboo, a big part of why it almost never directly criticizes President Trump. It’s also notable that, not so long ago, Biden was describing Xi and China differently. As recently as 2016 he was promoting his “friendship” with the Chinese leader and, in May 2019, said the world’s second-largest economy “is not competition for us” and its leaders “not bad folks.”