Hillary Clinton spoke to the Chinese audience as if she were giving a presidential address.
The former White House contender delivered a pointed, forceful attack Tuesday aimed at President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom the U.S. leader claims a unique chemistry. Her remarks — which ranged from human rights to climate change — were striking in their divergence from Trump’s, who visited China only weeks earlier.
This administration “came in and retreated from diplomacy,” she said via teleconference to a packed economics and policy conference in Beijing. While under Xi, “we are seeing an unprecedented consolidation of power. That does trigger anxiety about a more assertive Beijing and worries from your neighbors as well as the United States.”
The former secretary of State’s hour-long appearance included a keynote speech and questions. It comes less than a month after Xi feted Trump at the Forbidden City in a “state-visit plus” heavy on pageantry and short on evident breakthroughs.
Trump, who pulled off an upset over Clinton in 2016, has berated the Communist nation for unbalanced trade deals and treating North Korea too gently. He promised “tremendous things” for the two nations after the trip, but provided few concrete details. Trump did not publicly call out China for its human rights abuses or extensive claims in the South China Sea.
Clinton, seated in a white armchair with a backdrop of bookshelves, ticked them off like a list.
“The path to legitimacy and leadership runs through responsible cooperation, not through secret military build-ups on contested islands or bullying smaller neighbors,” Clinton said, in reference to China’s efforts to build artificial islands in waters its neighbors also claim.
Clinton has traversed the U.S. in recent months picking apart the presidential race and autographing copies of her third memoir, “What Happened.” In it, she faults herself — and a great many other people — for her loss.
In her speech Tuesday, she made multiple mentions of her book and Russia’s attempt to sway the election, although her comments focused most on the precarious nature of Sino-U.S. ties. The relationship, she said, “is at a crossroads.”
Clinton echoed several similar themes to Trump’s, including ensuring fair trade practices and doing more to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. She urged the U.S. and China to pursue negotiations with the isolated state, instead of resorting to “bluster” and “taunts.” (Trump’s nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “Rocket Man.” Kim has labeled Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”)
“Beijing should remember that inaction is a choice,” Clinton said.
Trump’s 13-day visit to Asia in early November sought to deepen assistance in dealing with North Korea, while convincing skeptical allies of America’s commitment to the region and reworking trade deals.
“You’re a very special man,” he told Xi at a briefing with reporters, where they did not take questions.
Clinton last visited Beijing officially in 2012 as the Obama administration’s top diplomat. But the former New York senator, two-time White House hopeful, and previous first lady has a history with China.
It began in 1995 when, as first lady, she gave a forceful speech at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. She declared “women’s rights are human rights,” and, without mentioning China, criticized forced abortions, mistreatment towards girls, and females sterilized against their will.
Chinese officials considered it an inappropriate swipe at the country’s treatment of women and its one-child policy. Human rights advocates embraced her bluntness. A New York Times editorial said it may have been “her finest moment in public life.”
Clinton reminded the audience of those remarks on Tuesday, and called it “one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”
She also referenced her decision to assist Chen Guangcheng, a blind civil rights lawyer who escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing seeking asylum. The move coincided with Clinton’s visit in 2012, sparking a diplomatic crisis. Chen was eventually allowed to leave the country.
Clinton helped launch strategic talks between the two countries, but some Chinese officials blamed her for pushing policies in the Asia-Pacific they viewed as an attempt to contain China.
A year after Clinton became secretary of State in 2009, she told a security conference in Hanoi that the U.S. had a vital interest in ensuring ships could sail freely on the South China Sea. China’s Foreign Ministry decried her comments as “an attack on China.”
In 2015, Clinton called Xi “shameless” for allowing the imprisonment of five feminists while he hosted a United Nations meeting on women’s rights. The Global Times, a state-run newspaper, labeled her a “rabble rouser” and accused her of “ignominious shenanigans.”
The paper compared Clinton to “demagogue Donald Trump.” At least some Chinese, it appeared, preferred the bureaucrat they didn’t like to the businessman they couldn’t predict.
But Chinese officials and businesses are now listening to the person who made it into White House, said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think tank.
“What she said may not have a big impact in China,” he said. “Chinese companies really care what the [current] administration thinks. … The business interest in China and the U.S. is still huge and that, fundamentally, is the biggest common denominator.”
Tuesday’s event was hosted by Caijing, a well-known business magazine that tends to draw big names to its annual conference. Former President Bill Clinton gave the keynote three years ago, when his wife was still weighing a second presidential run.
“I was the candidate of reality,” she said, in response to a final question on Tuesday. “It just wasn’t as entertaining as the reality TV candidate.”
Meyers is a special correspondent.