Bloomberg conceded that China had an “abominable” human-rights record and no freedom of the press, but then suggested that he isn’t particularly concerned about all of that. “We should make a fuss [about these issues], which we have been doing, I suppose,” he said. Yet Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! this was not. Then Bloomberg got to the bottom line: “We have to deal with China” to “solve the climate crisis,” and “because our economies are inextricably linked.”
Warren swiftly assailed Bloomberg for allowing his extensive business interests in China, which in the past allegedly resulted in the suppression of Bloomberg News investigations into Chinese government corruption, to cloud his views. “We know that Mayor Bloomberg has been doing business with China for a long time, and he is the only one on this stage who has not released his taxes,” she said. Bernie Sanders pointed out that the 24 men and one woman who make up the Chinese Communist Party’s backroom-dealing, policy-dictating Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee don’t exactly constitute the demos in a country of 1.4 billion people. “Who the hell is the Politburo responsive to?” Sanders asked. “Who elects the Politburo? You have got a real dictatorship there.”
Sanders, however, had his own run-in with his record on authoritarian governments. Swatting away criticism over his recent praise of Fidel Castro’s efforts to improve literacy rates in Cuba, the Democratic front-runner recognized that Cuba is a “dictatorship” and stated that “authoritarianism of any stripe is bad.” Still, he argued that this shouldn’t preclude people from acknowledging when dictatorships “do something good.”
The senator, who opposed U.S. efforts to remove leftist Latin American governments and as a mayor in Vermont traveled to Castro’s Cuba and Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua to express solidarity with them, has at times muted his critiques of autocrats whom he considers victims of American imperialism. That’s what seemed to be going on during the debate, as he segued from defending his remarks about Castro’s literacy programs to an apparent allusion to U.S. attempts to oust Castro. “Occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world—in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran,” he said.
Yes, Sanders was encouraging Americans to confront this country’s very spotty track record on supporting democracy abroad and to discuss the records of other governments with more nuance. But he was also echoing arguments often made by apologists for authoritarian regimes.
Read: The Sanders doctrine
Joe Biden was most forceful during the debate in denouncing dictatorships. He called Xi a “thug” who has put a million members of the country’s Uighur minority in “concentration camps” and “doesn't have a democratic ... bone in his body.” He pushed back against Bloomberg’s insinuation that cooperating with China on addressing climate change requires downplaying its human-rights abuses, arguing that China would serve its own interests by combatting climate change, regardless of what U.S. leaders say about how it treats its people. He also called out Sanders for shying away from condemning authoritarianism in Cuba and Nicaragua.