Free Speech

Biden's Support for COVID Protests Hinges on What Country They're in

The president has urged the Chinese government to respect the rights of anti-lockdown demonstrators. He actively encouraged the Canadian government to end the trucker protests.


Protests against COVID restrictions get very different treatment by President Joe Biden depending on where they're occurring.

The White House has been quick to support the rights of Chinese demonstrators taking to the streets in opposition to the country's "Zero COVID" policy and the seemingly endless lockdowns needed to enforce it. Recent revelations show that closer to home, the administration actively encouraged a civil liberties-violating crackdown on Canadian protests against vaccine mandates.

"We think it's going to be very difficult for the People's Republic of China to be able to contain this virus through their zero COVID strategy," reads a Monday White House statement in response to anti-lockdown demonstrations that swept through major Chinese cities and university campuses over the weekend. "We've long said everyone has a right to peacefully protest, here in the United States and around the world. This includes the PRC."

The latest reports from China say police have flooded into public spaces to prevent fresh demonstrations from breaking out, and they have started to contact suspected rally attendees.

The White House's statement seems an attempt to ward off a more serious, violent crackdown, while not giving Chinese Communist officials too much room to claim that demonstrations are being directed from Washington. All things considered, that's a reasonable approach, even if the cautious wording has enraged some conservatives who want Biden to take a harder line.

Certainly, the statement is a lot more criticism than the White House ever offered of the Canadian government's harsh crackdown on truck drivers protesting a requirement that they be vaccinated in order to reenter their country.

Quite the opposite. The Biden administration urged the Canadian government to use whatever means it had to reopen border crossings barricaded by the so-called "Freedom convoy" and get a handle on the protests.

That's according to revelations of an ongoing Canadian inquiry into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's unprecedented invocation of Canada's Emergencies Act.

Trudeau's use of the act in February 2022 allowed his government to freeze the bank accounts of protest participants (even if they hadn't been charged, convicted, or even suspected of committing a crime), demand financial information of protestors be turned over to police, and ban even peaceful, non-disruptive public demonstrations.

It was an unquestionably authoritarian move that received criticism from across the political spectrum. Conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused Trudeau of declaring a dictatorship. The progressive Canadian Civil Liberties Association called the prime minister's actions "unnecessary, unjustifiable and unconstitutional." Reason's J.D. Tuccille said Trudeau had a "bad case of China-envy."

The only people who seem to support Trudeau's use of emergency powers against peaceful protestors are the prime minister himself—and the Biden White House.

Reporting from Politico on the inquiry into Trudeau's use of emergency powers shows that top-level Biden administration officials, including Department of Homeland Security officials, were in frequent contact with their Canadian counterparts during the trucker protests. They urged a swift end to the demonstrations.

The pressure campaign included a call between Biden and Trudeau a few days before the Emergencies Act was invoked. During that call, the prime minister reportedly assured the president that there was a plan to end the protests quickly.

U.S. and Canadian officials had even planned to have daily check-in calls about the protests. Once Trudeau activated the Emergencies Act, those never happened. Evidently, Washington had already gotten what it wanted.

China's "Zero COVID" policy is a lot stricter and a lot more injurious to people's civil liberties than Canada's vaccine mandate for truckers. But thus far, it seems like the Canadian government's response to its protests has been more sweeping and restrictive.

That doesn't mean Canada is generally more authoritarian than Communist-ruled China. To argue that would be absurd.

But Trudeau's actions are evidence that progressive, democratically elected governments still struggle with the authoritarian impulse when their control is threatened. It's an impulse the Biden administration was happy to encourage.

Economic and political self-interest probably goes a long way toward explaining the Biden administration's uneven support for demonstrations against the COVID state.

The truckers' blockade of U.S.-Canada border crossings stopped billions of dollars of goods from entering the U.S. That threatened more shortages and price hikes, areas that have been continual political headwinds for Biden.

China's "Zero COVID" policy has much the same effect. Its end would be of economic benefit to America, and of political benefit to Biden. That would be reason enough for the White House to look more favorably on the Chinese demonstrations than the Canadian ones.

The Canadian protests against the country's vaccine mandate also came right as the Biden administration was defending its own vaccine mandate for employees of larger businesses from legal challenges.

It would have been awkward indeed for the White House to domestically defend its own, far more sweeping vaccine while urging Canada's government to accommodate the demands of truckers to drop its industry-specific vaccine requirement. Instead, it heartily endorsed some incredibly repressive measures to end anti-mandate protests.

The good news is that Canada remains a liberal democracy. Trudeau's wielding of emergency powers proved temporary. The ongoing inquiry into his actions raises the hope that there will be some accountability.

And we obviously shouldn't take the Chinese government's more cautious response to demonstrations thus far as evidence of its tolerance for dissent. Chinese lockdown opponents' reasonable fear of what their government might do to them if they keep protesting is a powerful incentive to stay inside.

In other words, the Chinese government's authoritarian potential means that it has to take less explicit action to silence demonstrations. That helps prevent the kinds of persistent, disruptive protests that sparked the Canadian government's overreaction from breaking out.

The takeaway from Biden's role in all this is that the president's view of the right to demonstration hinges far more on his own political self-interest than on any principled commitment to free expression.

It's also a lesson in how restrictions on freedom in one country can damage it everywhere. Biden embraced an expansive view of his executive powers to effectively mandate vaccines for millions of Americans. That contributed to his support for the suppression of Canadian anti-mandate demonstrations. That support in turn erodes his moral authority to lecture the Chinese government on the right to protest.