US Vice-President Joe Biden opened a two-day visit to China on Wednesday by urging young Chinese students to challenge their government, teachers and religious leaders.
Arriving midday in Beijing, Biden paid a visit to the US embassy, where he surprised Chinese citizens waiting to get visitor visas processed in the embassy’s consular section. Thanking a group of mostly young people for wanting to visit the US, Biden said he hoped they would learn during their visit that “innovation can only occur where you can breathe free”.
“Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo,” Biden said. “The only way you make something totally new is to break the mould of what was old.”
The Vice-President seemed to be alluding to the authoritarian rule of China’s government as he described a liberal and permissive intellectual culture in the United States.
“I hope you observe it when you’re there,” said Biden, flanked by US ambassador Gary Locke. “From the beginning of our country, it’s a constant stream of new immigrants, new cultures, new ideas, new religions, brand new people continuing to reinvigorate the spirit of America.”
Biden also offered measured praise for China’s educational system, a day after results from a global exam showed American students once again lagging behind many of their Asian and European peers. Students in Shanghai, China’s largest city, had the top scores in all subjects on that exam.
“Even though some countries’ educational systems are better than America’s — particularly in grade school — there is one thing that’s stamped in the DNA of every American, whether they are naturalised citizens or natural-born,” he said. “It’s an inherent rejection of orthodoxy.”
Similar comments from Biden in the past have created a stir. When Biden in May told students at the University of Pennsylvania that you can’t think differently in a nation where you can’t breathe free, Chinese students requested an apology. His visit comes at a tense moment for the US and China, at odds over Beijing’s insistence that pilots flying through airspace over a set of disputed islands file flight plans with China.