(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is reacting cautiously to protests erupting in China over its government’s “Covid Zero” lockdowns, just two weeks after President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to ease strained relations between their countries.
A spokesman for the White House National Security Council, John Kirby, told reporters Monday that Biden has been briefed on the demonstrations and US officials are “going to watch this closely.”
But he did not directly criticize Xi or the Chinese government for its handling of protests. Beijing has sought to suppress the unrest by a massive deployment of police across the country.
“People should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with,” Kirby said. “We continue to stand up and support the right of peaceful protests.”
In a rare display of public anger over Beijing’s policies, Chinese residents have taken to the streets in cities across the country in recent days to demonstrate against the strict lockdowns and mass-testing regime, clashing with police. Some demonstrators have even called for Xi to step down.
Read more: Xi Has Few Good Options to End Historic China Covid Protests
While some protesters have been arrested, Chinese authorities have not yet responded with a widespread, violent crackdown. The tumult in the world’s second-largest economy follows the first in-person meeting between Biden and Xi on Nov. 14 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, where the men agreed to ease tensions and reestablish communications on climate, health and other international matters.
Kirby said Biden and Xi discussed “Covid and the effect the pandemic had had around the world.” But he said he didn’t know if China’s Covid Zero policies had come up.
“A lockdown is not a policy that we’re going to support here, we’ve come a long way,” Kirby said. He also said the US has not offered and China has not requested any doses of US-developed vaccines that have been shown to be more effective against the virus than China’s vaccines.
The US welcomes the re-opening of lines of communication between Washington and Beijing after the meeting, Kirby said.
Although the demonstrations have interrupted production at a major Apple supplier, Kirby said the administration does not yet see any economic disruptions from the protests.
“We don’t see any particular impact right now to the supply chain as a result of these protests,” he said.
Apple Inc. said it expected a massive production shortfall of iPhone Pro units due to unrest at a critical plant in Zhengzhou, where workers have pushed back against pay and quarantine practices.
Earlier: Apple Faces Deficit of 6 Million IPhone Pros on China Tumult
In the past, the US has been wary of throwing its support behind protests in authoritarian nations to avoid any claim that it’s providing support or otherwise fomenting the demonstrations. Already, China’s foreign ministry accused “some forces with ulterior motives” for suggesting Covid restrictions were to blame for a blaze in the city of Urumqi that set off some of the protests.
The Biden administration had similarly reacted with caution to protests in Iran that erupted in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. The US eventually shed that reticence and voiced more robust support for the demonstrators.
The protests in China have ranged from a few people to rallies of hundreds, posing a dilemma for Xi, who secured a precedent-breaking third term in power earlier this year and has packed the country’s leadership with loyalists. The demonstrations represent one of the most significant challenges to Communist Party rule since the student-led democracy protests in Tiananmen Square more than 30 years ago.
--With assistance from Jordan Fabian and Nick Wadhams.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.