While Biden talks about Xi
Blinken’s face speaks volumes

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When US President Joe Biden has almost finished a press conference and steps away from the lectern, a journalist shouts another question at him. Biden answers – to the chagrin of his chief diplomat Antony Blinken. Because it’s about China’s head of state Xi Jinping – who is currently in the USA.

A single image of an international summit often sticks in your head. The one weird photo of two heads of state, the one scene that everyone ends up talking about. This was also the case at the APEC summit in San Francisco, the meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Community. At the end, one scene was particularly worth discussing: not the sensational meeting between US President Joe Biden and China’s head of state Xi Jinping per se, but a moment on the sidelines: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the verge of despair, as Biden Xi at the end once again referred to as a “dictator”. Video clips of Blinken’s reaction to his boss’s statement spread rapidly online in the hours and days that followed.

Back to top: Biden gave a press conference outside San Francisco after meeting with Xi. He had just finished announcing that the extremely tense relations with China had been brought back into somewhat more orderly shape. That was the whole point of the meeting, which Blinken and other government officials had been working toward for months in a diplomatic balancing act. Biden stepped away from the desk and was about to leave the room when reporters shouted more questions at him. Biden responded to that question: Whether he would continue to call Xi a “dictator” after the meeting.

Biden replied: “Look, that’s him.” Xi is a dictator in the sense that he leads a communist country “based on a form of government that is completely different from ours.”

Only later did recordings from television cameras become public in which Blinken could be seen in the front row at the press conference – and his reaction to Biden’s answer. Even as he asks the question, Blinken visibly sighs, rolls his eyes, presses his lips together and folds his arms on his lap. He briefly looks pleadingly in the direction of the president. As he begins to answer, Blinken begins to convulsively press his hands together. And after the critical first words are out, Blinken turns his head to the side and grimaces, as if he were experiencing physical pain. He furrows his forehead, briefly closes his eyes and struggles to compose himself.

The Chinese government predictably criticized Biden’s statement as “wrong” and “irresponsible.” In an interview with the US television network CBS, Blinken was later asked what was going through his mind at the press conference given the diplomatic complications at that moment and whether it was the general line of the US government to label Xi a “dictator”. The minister had long since regained his composure and said, as usual, diplomatically: “The President always speaks openly, and he speaks for all of us.” And: The US government will probably continue to “say and do things that China doesn’t like” – and vice versa.