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Obama Issues a Warning Over Xi Jinping’s Growing Power

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U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday gave a stern assessment of what he called Chinese President Xi Jinping’s quick consolidation of power, expressing worries about China’s dubious human rights record and insistent nationalism.

Obama told members of the Business Roundtable in Washington that the Chinese President “has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping,” referring to the Chinese leader who succeeded Mao Zedong in 1978, Reuters reports.

“Everybody’s been impressed by [Xi’s] clout inside of China after only a year and a half or two years,” he said. A recent TIME cover described the leader of the world’s most populous nation as an “emperor” and opined that he would be China’s most consequential leader since Deng.

Yet that clout, Obama said, has been put to regressive uses, including the enactment of policies that suppress dissent and harm human rights, as well as encourage a fierce “nationalism that worries his [Xi’s] neighbors.” Despite a highly publicized anti-corruption drive, China has also backslid 20 places to #100 on the 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, a Berlin-based watchdog’s well-respected ranking of countries by transparency.

Still, Obama added that Xi appears to be sincere in his wish for “good relations” with the United States. Obama traveled to Beijing last month to meet the Chinese president and attend the APEC summit, where the two leaders announced a blockbuster deal on addressing climate change. Obama told the roundtable that American businesses in China should speak up if they feel “strong-armed” by Chinese authorities on various issues, even if doing so jeopardizes their success in the Chinese market.

The Obama administration always walks a fine line between courting a cooperative relationship with China and critiquing the nation’s attitude toward human rights. It has found doing so all the harder in recent months, as the central government in Beijing and protesters in Hong Kong remain deeply opposed over the future of China’s most open city.

Xi’s government in Beijing says it has the right to vet candidates for Hong Kong’s top leadership role, an election plan that Hong Kong protesters say flouts democratic principles. China’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, has accused the U.S. of being involved in Hong Kong’s so-called Umbrella Revolution, which erupted in protest over Beijing’s restrictions on candidacy.

The U.S. has said that it supports a “meaningful” choice of candidates for Hong Kong voters, but denies any involvement in the protests that have been going on for 68 days.

Obama told the Chinese president at APEC that the U.S. will “consistently speak out on the right of people to express themselves” and support elections in Hong Kong that are “transparent and fair and reflective of the opinions of people there.” Xi has stressed that the conflict is a domestic affair on which the U.S. should not have an opinion.

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Write to Elizabeth Barber at elizabeth.barber@timeasia.com