Speaking to CNN on Friday in Beijing, Terry Branstad, longtime former Iowa governor, agreed with President Donald Trump that China was responsible for the pandemic, adding that “the Chinese system was such ‘concealed and even penalized the doctors who pointed it out at the start. ”
Echoing the criticisms of the Communist Party of China by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other White House officials, Branstad also accused the Chinese system of having led to a spike in tensions and a degradation of the one of Washington’s most consistent bilateral relations.
He told CNN he wanted to return home, noting that he had been in the post “longer than the three previous ambassadors.”
The Chinese government announced last week that it would impose unspecified restrictions on senior U.S. diplomats and personnel in China after Washington implemented a similar measure targeting Beijing’s diplomatic corps on September 3.
Branstad has known Chinese President Xi Jinping since the 1980s, although his role as ambassador has become increasingly difficult in recent months as the coronavirus epidemic continued to spread around the world.
Branstad was ultimately never able to leverage the personal relationship for the benefit of bilateral relations.
‘Friend of the Chinese people’
Branstad was one of Trump’s first ambassadorial choices in December 2016, shortly after Trump himself was elected.
Trump said at the time that the then Iowa governor was chosen for his experience in public policy, trade and agriculture, as well as his “long-standing relationship” with Xi.
The two first met in the 1980s, when Xi was a relatively low-ranking local official, and reportedly maintained some sort of friendship, with Xi meeting Branstad again during a visit to the United States. in 2012 as vice-president.
Speaking on Friday, Branstad said he “had the honor of being the first US governor to welcome Xi Jinping when he was just a county-level party secretary of our brother state of Hebei. “.
He said he and Trump saw the value of establishing personal relationships with foreign officials.
“I think you always, when it comes to diplomacy, you want to build relationships with people,” Branstad said, adding that “President Xi is a very strong leader for China, but this is about ‘a communist and authoritarian system, and unfortunately we have very different systems. ”
He hinted that China may have taken advantage of Trump’s personal relationship with Xi, saying the US president was initially willing to believe “what (China) said about the virus, then him and the rest. of the world discovered what they said was not true. . ”
China has always denied that it mismanaged the early stages of the pandemic and raised the question of whether the virus originated in Wuhan.
Initially, Branstad’s appointment was welcomed by Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang, praising him as an “old friend of the Chinese people.”
But Branstad has overseen one of the most difficult periods in US-China relations in recent history. Since his appointment, the Trump administration has imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods as part of a long-standing trade war. It also banned Chinese tech companies such as Huawei from accessing the country’s communications infrastructure and receiving US components, and tightened visa restrictions for Chinese state media journalists working in the United States. .
Branstad also criticized actions taken by Beijing in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where Chinese authorities have been accused of suppressing and restricting civil liberties, and for the ongoing territorial aggression in the South China Sea.
On September 9, an opinion piece by Branstad accusing the Chinese government of “exploiting” the American openness in recent decades was dismissed for publication by Communist Party spokesman the People’s Daily, to be “seriously incompatible with the facts”.
“If you want to publish this editorial in People’s Daily, you should do substantive, fact-based revisions in the principle of equality and mutual respect,” the state publication said in its rejection letter.
Branstad said one of Washington’s priorities has been to improve “reciprocity and fairness” in relations with China, especially on the trade issue, but also for diplomats and journalists, who have faced increasing restrictions in China in recent months.
And while Branstad said the United States “took the lead” in holding Beijing to account, he pointed to growing discontent elsewhere in the world, which he blamed on growing diplomacy. more aggressive action from China, as well as the country’s inability to contain the initial coronavirus outbreak. .
“It really is, I think, the Chinese Communist system, and their refusal to admit wrongdoing. It caused all of this. And that’s the tragedy, ”said Branstad.
“Interest in people around the world in working with and supporting China has declined dramatically, not just in the United States. ”
“The mistreatment of the Uyghurs, which they did in Hong Kong and the South China Sea, they alienated a lot of people in the rest of the world,” Branstad said. “India, which has been a neutral country, what they have done to India has caused them real problems,” he added, referring to the continuing tensions on the common border of countries in the country. ‘Himalayas.
This coincided with the increasingly precarious situation for foreigners living in China itself. Branstad spoke of the case of two Canadians, detained in China since 2018 in apparent retaliation for the arrest by Canadian authorities of Huawei leader Meng Wanzhou. The two Canadians, Branstad said, had been “detained for no good reason,” a situation he said he hoped no American would fall into.
Role at home
Eric, Branstad’s son, is a senior advisor to Trump Victory 2020, the joint fundraising committee between the campaign and the Republican National Committee, and in a recording tweeted by Eric last week, Trump said Elder Branstad “Was coming back from China because he wanted to campaign. ”
The Trump campaign believes Branstad – as a former popular governor – could have an impact on voters in Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and even Minnesota, according to two familiar sources.
“He’s still playing well in the Midwest. He has a strong identity and is probably the best person to talk about Chinese influence, ”said a source close to the Trump campaign.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Trump remain in a very close race in Iowa, polls show in recent months. Trump won the state by roughly 10% in 2016.
Experts say the repercussions of Branstad’s departure from Beijing should not be major, given that he was not a central player in the US-China political space. While Branstad is not a prominent voice in the Trump administration’s anti-China strategy, he is expected to take a “more forward-thinking approach” when he goes into campaign. the source close to the campaign said.
Brandstad himself has said he would be happy to play a role in sharing “with the American people what this administration has done … to take a strong stand against inequity in China.”
“I can’t wait to get back to Iowa,” he said. “My wife and I have always been Iowa residents, the longest we’ve ever lived anywhere else. ”
And he appears to have left the door open to a future official role if Trump were to be re-elected, saying he was only “retiring as ambassador.”
CNN’s James Griffiths, Ben Westcott, Kylie Atwood and Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.