The White House on Monday criticized China's coronavirus containment strategy and said people there have a "right to peacefully protest," although its comments were notably restrained at a time it is seeking to strengthen relations with Beijing.
The comments follow the most significant demonstrations in China in decades as over the weekend, protesters in Shanghai, Beijing and elsewhere challenged police in the streets, with some even calling for China's President Xi Jinping to resign.
"We've long said everyone has the right to peacefully protest, in the United States and around the world," a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, who requested anonymity, said. "This includes in the PRC."
The spokesperson used the acronym for China's official name, the People's Republic of China.
At a later briefing Monday, White House spokesman John Kirby said that “people should be allowed the right to assemble and to peacefully protest policies or laws or dictates that they take issue with."
Asked why the earlier White House statement did not include any explicit calls for China to stop detaining and harming protesters and journalists, Kirby did not directly say.
"We're watching this closely, as you might expect, we would," Kirby told reporters. "And again, we continue to stand up and support the right of peaceful protest. And I think we're going to watch this closely and we'll see where things go.”
Asked explicitly if the White House supported people in China’s efforts to "regain their personal freedoms in light of these lockdowns," he replied, "The White House supports the right of peaceful protest." He did not elaborate.
The Biden administration has emphasized the need to manage the United States' strategic relationship with China, which it this year labeled the United States' "only competitor with both the intent and, increasingly, the capability to reshape the international order."
Biden has spoken with China's Xi half a dozen times since taking office, most recently in person -- for the first time since both became president -- this month at a summit in Indonesia.
China's continued strategy of locking down large parts of its cities and subjecting residents to stringent testing and restrictions stands in stark contrast to the approach to COVID in the United States and much of the rest of the world, which have largely returned to life as normal while living with the pandemic.
Since last winter's omicron wave subsided, Biden has adopted a strategy that eschews large-scale lockdowns or mandatory restrictions on Americans. A significant portion of the American population is now vaccinated against the virus, and the country has increasingly prioritized its economic recovery.
In September said in an interview that the pandemic was "over."
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, told ABC's "This Week" on Sunday that a better strategy would be to "build up immunity in the population by getting people vaccinated," as the United States has done.
The spokesperson also said that it would be "very difficult" for China to be able to contain COVID using its current strategy.
"I think it's going to be very, very difficult for China to be able to contain this through their zero COVID strategy," Jha said in an interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz. "I would recommend that they pursue the strategy of making sure everybody gets vaccinated, particularly their elderly. That I think is the path out of this virus. Lockdown and zero COVID is going to very difficult to sustain."