Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday responded to criticism from Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for the Biden administration's "weak" and "cowardly" response to protests over China's "zero COVID" policy, insisting the administration fully supports the protestors.
Blinken appeared on CNN's "State of the Union" where he was pressed by anchor Jake Tapper about whether the administration supports these protests, prompting Blinken to say, "Of course we do."
"We support the right of people everywhere, whether it's in China, whether it's Iran, whether it's anyplace else, to protest peacefully, to make known their views, to vent their frustrations," Blinken said. "And as that's repressed in one way or another in any given country, we speak out against it. We stand up against it and we take action against it."
"In the case of Iran, we've worked very hard to impose sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown on mostly Iranian women who have been leading in an incredibly courageous way these protests since the death of Mahsa Amini, as well as trying to make sure that Iranians have in their hands the communications technology to allow them to continue talking to each other and connect with the outside world," Blinken continued. " We've spoken out against the repression of protestors anywhere, including in China."
Sen. Rubio and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., released a joint statement late last month blasting the Biden administration regarding the "historic mass protests against General Secretary Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)."
"The Biden Administration's weak rejection of the CCP’s zero-Covid policy and refusal to call out General Secretary Xi’s totalitarian grip is nothing short of cowardly. Just weeks after shaking hands with Xi in Bali, President Biden and his administration have once again demonstrated that they are unwilling to stand up to the CCP and stand in solidarity with the Chinese people," the Republican lawmakers said.
Blinken went on to say that "this is not about us" and that the focus should be on the protestors in both countries who are "trying to have their aspirations met." Blinken was then asked what he plans on telling Chinese President Xi Jinping regarding the protestors at the beginning of 2023 when he travels to China.
"We'll say what we always say and what President Biden has said to 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 be silent on that," Blinken said. "It's very important that we're communicating directly and clearly with China. We want to make sure there are no misunderstandings, no miscommunication, that we have a floor under the relationship and that the president has had a productive conversation in that sense."
Over the last week, protests in China have spread across approximately 20 provinces in China over the country's "zero-COVID" policy. A deadly fire in a high-rise building in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, that cost 10 people their lives a little over a week ago appears to have been a catalyst for many of the protestors who took to the streets and clashed with police.
Last weekend, people gathered in the city center of Shanghai to light candles for the victims of the deadly fire. Around midnight, the crowd had swelled to over a thousand people, chanting, "apologize," directed at the central government, as well as "Xi Jinping, step down" and "Communist Party, step down."
Such slogans aimed directly at Xi and his central leadership committee are unprecedented. Even during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, protesters demanded democratic reform, not regime change.
In a bipartisan letter to China's Washington ambassador, Qin Gang, a group of 42 Senators warned China that they were "closely" watching Beijing’s response to the unrest and said that any violent crackdown on the protestors would cause "extraordinary damage" to the U.S.-China relationship.
"We caution the CCP in the strongest possible terms not to once again undertake a violent crackdown on peaceful Chinese protesters who simply want more freedom," the letter penned by Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley said.
Multiple reports over the last few days have suggested that Beijing is considering easing back its harsh COVID policies and that a top official reportedly claimed the virus was weakening. According to Reuters, sources said Beijing is considering making changes to its mass testing policy, as well as allowing those who have contracted the disease, or were in close contact with someone who tested positive, to quarantine at home under certain conditions.
The deadly protests in Iran were sparked in mid-September in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in a hospital after slipping into a coma after an alleged beating by the country’s morality police. Officers had arrested Amini for breaching the country’s hijab (headscarf) laws.
What started as demonstrations in the capital spread to over 140 cities and towns across the country, growing into the most significant challenges to the regime since its establishment following the 1979 revolution. An Iranian general acknowledged more than 300 protestors have been killed surrounding the unrest from the protests. However, a U.S.-based human rights group called Human Rights Activists in Iran estimates that the death toll is higher with over 450 protesters and 60 security forces killed. The group also says over 18,000 people have been detained.
Fox News Digital's Caitlin McFall, Peter Aitken, Houston Keene, and Fox News Staff contributed to this report.