In rare rebuke, US ambassador accuses China of undermining diplomacy

U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing this spring. PHOTO: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing this spring. PHOTO: MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

Beijing has been stirring up anti-American sentiment and preventing people from attending embassy events, Nicholas Burns said in an interview.

BEIJING—In November last year, President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to boost engagement between ordinary Chinese and Americans, part of an effort to repair fraying ties ahead of a tense election year in the U.S.

Instead, says Nicholas Burns, Washington’s ambassador in Beijing, China has actively undermined those ties, interrogating and intimidating citizens who attend U.S.-organized events in China, ramping up restrictions on the embassy’s social-media posts and whipping up anti-American sentiment.

“They say they’re in favor of reconnecting our two populations, but they’re taking dramatic steps to make it impossible," Burns said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

The 68-year-old Burns, a veteran diplomat who took up his post in April 2022, used unusually forceful language to criticize what he described as an effort by Beijing to weaken America’s standing and disrupt its diplomatic activities in China.

The remarks by Burns show that, behind a fragile detente reached last year, there has been growing concern among U.S. officials about Beijing’s sincerity in improving relations.

Burns, who spoke to the Journal at his embassy office in the Chinese capital, also took aim at Beijing for what he described as efforts to stir up anti-American sentiment domestically, saying that he was particularly concerned about the recent stabbing of four Iowa college instructors in northeastern China.

China’s Foreign Ministry and State Council Information Office didn’t respond to questions from the Journal about the comments by Burns.

Relations between the U.S. and China appeared to be stabilizing after a November summit in San Francisco between Xi and Biden. While in California, Xi said he hoped some 50,000 American exchange students would come to China over the next five years.

Since the San Francisco summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and other senior U.S. officials have been welcomed to Beijing by top Chinese leaders. Chinese officials have invoked the “San Francisco vision" to call for more dialogue and cooperation between the two countries. China has struck a string of deals to send giant pandas to zoos in Washington, San Francisco and San Diego.

Despite the bonhomie, tensions have continued to simmer between the superpowers over China’s indirect support for Russia’s war in Ukraine and its increasing reliance on exports that have driven down prices in global markets. Strains in relations are also growing ahead of November’s presidential election in the U.S., where Biden and his rival, former President Donald Trump, have sharply criticized each other’s approach on China.

In the interview, Burns said that Beijing has ramped up its suppression of American diplomatic activities in China. He tallied 61 public events since November in which China’s Ministry of State Security or other government bodies pressured Chinese citizens not to go, or attempted to intimidate those who attended.

Some attendees of the U.S. Embassy-organized events—which include talks by mental-health specialists, panel discussions on women’s entrepreneurship, documentary screenings and cultural performances—have been interrogated by officials, sometimes at home late at night.

Beijing has also made it harder for Chinese students to attend U.S. universities, Burns said. University fairs across China have rescinded invitations for U.S. diplomatic staff to promote American colleges to high-school students and their parents, citing ideological or national-security concerns, the embassy said. Roughly half of students chosen for U.S.-funded exchange programs, amounting to dozens of people, have pulled out over the past two years, pointing to pressure from authorities, schools and employers.

“What they tell us and what they tell the world is they want people-to-people engagement, and yet this is not just episodic. This is routine. This is nearly every public event," Burns said. “This is a serious breach and we hope that the PRC will reconsider," he added, using an acronym for the People’s Republic of China.

In one case, he said, a venue pulled the literal plug on a concert organized by the U.S. Embassy without explanation, saying there would be no electricity on the day of the event and effectively scuttling it. The venue hosted an event the prior night and then another one the night afterward with no apparent issue, embassy officials said.

“It’s not the sign of a confident government," Burns said.

For its part, China has complained in recent years that Washington has restricted the movements of its diplomats in the U.S., for instance asking them to seek advance approval for certain travel. Beijing says its citizens are regularly subjected to racism and discrimination in the U.S. while Chinese students holding U.S. visas have been subjected to harsh questioning upon arrival and, in some cases, been turned away.

Burns dismissed the Chinese complaints, saying that more than 99% of student visa holders clear immigration without incident. “You’ve got to tell the truth on your visa applications, and if you don’t, you get caught," he said, while allowing for the possibility of the occasional mistake by U.S. officials.

The U.S. issued some 105,000 new student visas to Chinese citizens in 2023, the highest since before the pandemic, and is approving them at an even faster pace this year. Burns said they could issue even more if the U.S. Embassy were allowed to hire Chinese employees, who help process the hundreds of thousands of visa applications each year.

Burns said China hasn’t granted permission for the U.S. Embassy to hire any Chinese employee for three years now, including after the San Francisco summit. That means fewer local workers to handle the growing pile of visa applications, which Burns pointed to as evidence of the U.S.’s undiminished appeal among ordinary Chinese.

Despite Chinese citizens’ continued demand for U.S. visas, Burns said he was contending with a rise in anti-Americanism, which he suggested was stoked in part by officials in Beijing.

Earlier this month, a Chinese man stabbed four Iowa college instructors in a city park in northeastern China. Local police said the suspected assailant, a 55-year-old Chinese man, bumped into one of the four foreigners, three of whom were American citizens. Authorities said they apprehended the suspect, but they haven’t released any further information about the incident.

The four victims are recovering from their injuries, the embassy said. At least one of the instructors was discharged from the hospital and headed home, according to a family member.

“I’m not satisfied that we’ve been given sufficient information as to the motives of the assailant," Burns said.

More broadly, he added, “I’ve been concerned for my two-plus years here about the very aggressive Chinese government…efforts to denigrate America, to tell a distorted story about American society, American history, American policy. It happens every day on all the networks available to the government here, and there’s a high degree of anti-Americanism online."

Burns said it was difficult to counter that message, given that the U.S. Embassy’s attempts to reach ordinary Chinese people through its accounts on Chinese social-media platforms have increasingly been stymied by censorship. Links and comments have been blocked, even on relatively innocuous posts such as readouts of bilateral meetings with Chinese counterparts and discussions of wildlife conservation.

Burns says he has challenged his Chinese counterparts in closed-door meetings about what he sees as a widening gap between Beijing’s public commitments and its actions.

“We’ve had innumerable conversations with the government of China about this and nothing has changed, and nothing gets fixed," he said.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at Jonathan.Cheng@wsj.com

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