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News brief: Biden-Xi summit, Steve Bannon, Cuba thwarts protests


When President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met by teleconference last night, Biden repeated his goal for their summit. He said he wanted to avoid conflict and instead talk about competition.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It seems to me we need to establish some commonsense guardrails, to be clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect.


To that end, they talked for more than three hours but didn't claim any breakthroughs. Instead, they seemed to be sort of nudging the relationship along.

MARTÍNEZ: We're joined now by NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, what was the mood like around these talks?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: So it was largely amiable, and Xi Jinping even started out his remarks by greeting Biden like this.


PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Speaking non-English language).

FENG: Xi says here, "It would be better to meet you, President Biden, in person, but this is all right. I'm very happy to see an old friend." He's referring to the fact that they've known each other for several years, ever since President Biden was vice president.

MARTÍNEZ: Happy to see an old friend - that sounds hopeful. Now, the White House and Biden spoke before and after the meeting about setting guardrails for the U.S.-China relationship. What do we know about what Biden emphasized, especially on the issues the two maybe don't see eye to eye on?

FENG: We do know the two countries said they raised tough issues. A White House official talked to reporters, including myself, after the two leaders talked. And this official said that Biden raised human rights issues in China. Biden, for example, encouraged China to maintain the status quo towards Taiwan. We can read that as meaning encouraging China not to take military action against the island. Biden also pushed China to abide by fair trade practices, which has been a big sticking point. Chinese authorities say that Xi Jinping pressed the U.S. to reduce sanctions on Chinese companies and to respect Beijing's political choices on Taiwan and human rights. So some conflict there but, again, constructive dialogue.

MARTÍNEZ: How is their meeting going over in China?

FENG: To its own citizens, China's really played up its growing self-confidence, so it's definitely emphasized the spirit of cooperation in these talks. But it's also emphasized that in these talks, President Biden recognized China as a, quote, "major power" for 5,000 years and that, quote, "The U.S. does not seek to change China's system." All of the state media coverage here has also cast Xi Jinping as this benevolent global leader who is engaging with American leaders.

This narrative is likely because China feels confident going into these talks, especially vis-a-vis the U.S. It feels like it's got the upper hand on, say, keeping COVID deaths low in China, albeit through ongoing lockdowns and quarantines. And Beijing feels stronger than ever that it's able to stand up to foreign powers. So this nice video chat with Biden is aimed at reducing tensions. China does want to improve relations, but that does not mean Beijing is willing to compromise its overall political goals. It wants to build a strong country that will compete with the U.S.

MARTÍNEZ: So should we maybe expect a more stable relationship between the U.S. and China going forward?

FENG: Potentially. We have to see if this communication today actually results in concrete political changes because many of the sanctions and tariffs from the Trump administration remain on Chinese companies and individuals. And during today's talks, Xi Jinping himself indicated that China will not budge on the real points of conflict that get in the way of the U.S.-China relationship. So this means that the competition between the two countries over technology, these disagreements over human rights, they will almost certainly continue. And in the meantime, there is some pressure for Biden at home to boycott the Winter Olympics, which start in Beijing this February. But the White House official who briefed reporters today said the Olympics did not come up during talks, so that's still an open question.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks a lot.

FENG: Thanks, A.


MARTÍNEZ: Former White House adviser Steve Bannon sounds like he's writing a new playbook for fighting criminal contempt of Congress charges.


STEVE BANNON: I'm telling you right now - this is going to be the misdemeanor from hell for Merrick Garland, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.

KING: Bannon was in federal court yesterday after he ignored a subpoena from lawmakers investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol. He didn't enter a plea, and he's due back in court later this week.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Carrie Johnson is here now. Carrie, tell us about this rather wild scene near the courthouse.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: It was wild. Steve Bannon turned himself in at the local FBI office in Washington. He decided to livestream the entire process for a conservative website. He also pledged to tune out what he called the noise of the legal process and, quote, "take down" what he called the Biden regime. Now, Bannon has hired a familiar face. It's David Schoen, one of the lawyers who defended former President Trump in Trump's second impeachment trial. Schoen said this prosecution is outrageous. He says Bannon was advised by a lawyer - another lawyer - not to talk to Congress. And Bannon says the Justice Department has taken on the wrong guy.

Inside the courtroom, A, there was a lot less of that bluster and tough talk. The magistrate judge made sure that Bannon understood his rights and that he surrendered his passport before she released him.

MARTÍNEZ: So what does the January 6 committee want from Steve Bannon? And actually, does he have information that could advance the probe?

JOHNSON: The committee sure thinks so. They point to a podcast that Bannon did a day before the storming of the Capitol. He warned January 6 would be game day, and he said that all hell was going to break loose. Bannon also took part in at least one meeting at a Washington hotel before the attack. That hotel was a kind of command center for Trump's efforts to overturn the election. But Bannon refused to turn over any documents to Congress or even to show up to tell the committee he was not going to cooperate. And that's how he wound up with a two-count indictment on criminal contempt of Congress charges.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows is also resisting a subpoena. Both say they're basically following orders from former President Trump, who's asserting executive privilege. Will that defense, Carrie, hold up?

JOHNSON: Well, we may see. It's possible, maybe even likely, that Bannon is going to gamble on a trial. But he cannot expect to get a pardon from President Biden like he did from former President Trump earlier this year in another criminal case. So this is going to cost him time and lawyer's fees and, if he loses - if he's convicted, as much as $200,000 in fines and two years in jail. Remember; Bannon was a podcaster, a private citizen on January 6. He hadn't worked in the Trump White House since 2017.

The legal situation with Mark Meadows is a lot more complicated. That's because executive privilege is supposed to protect sensitive communications between presidents and their aides. And there's really no aide more powerful than the chief of staff, so it would be a harder call for the Justice Department to prosecute matters for that reason. So far, the Justice Department has argued what happened January 6 was a heinous assault on democracy, not legitimate government business that deserves protection. The select committee members of Congress have said Meadows' actions will force the panel to consider pursuing contempt.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks a lot.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.


MARTÍNEZ: Cuba's government is using police, state security agents and civilian supporters to crush even plans for dissent.

KING: The dissent in this case is street protests. Cuban authorities have responded by blocking people in their homes.

MARTÍNEZ: With us this morning is CNN correspondent Patrick Oppmann. He joins us from Havana. Patrick, welcome to the show.

PATRICK OPPMANN: Thank you so much.

MARTÍNEZ: Organizers hope to duplicate this summer's protests, some of the biggest in Cuba in decades. Instead, nothing happened. So what's different now?

OPPMANN: Well, the Cuban government was ready this time. That was what was different. They deployed police and plainclothes state security agents across the island well in advance of the planned protests. Activists we saw were kept from leaving their homes by these mobs of angry government supporters. And there were arrests. Unlike those spontaneous protests in July, the Cuban government knew when this protest would take place and who many of the people that were planning on going out and protesting were. And that really allowed them to bring their many resources, this enormous state security apparatus that they've spent decades building, to ensure that the demonstrations that threaten the Communist Party's grip on power would not happen again.

MARTÍNEZ: I know there's a playwright who has been organizing these protests on social media. Tell us about him.

OPPMANN: Yeah, his name is Yunior Garcia Aguilera, and I interviewed him at his apartment just a few weeks ago. And despite the Cuban government's claims that Yunior has been bankrolled by the United States, that he's a, quote, "mercenary," Yunior really lives in a rundown area of Havana. He's a playwright. He's not a typical dissident. He's someone who, up until recently, was winning awards from the government and having his work promoted. He's a critic of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, of U.S. policy on Cuba. But Yunior also believes that Cubans have a right to demand changes of their government.



OPPMANN: So what Yunior is saying there is that the government's actions have shown there's no rule of law, that there's no possibility for citizens to legally, peacefully and orderly show their dissent to those in power is what he said. And the fact that Yunior was prevented from leaving his house by the government without any legal justification, in his mind at least, is really the best evidence to support what he's saying about the Cuban system.

MARTÍNEZ: Patrick, what, if anything, has changed since the protests this past summer?

OPPMANN: In July, the government was caught off guard. Those were the largest protests since the Cuban Revolution. And you really sensed authorities didn't know what to do. Cuba's president had to get on TV and give what he called the order to combat. This time, the order was already given weeks in advance. When government supporters blocked Yunior from leaving his apartment, it was well-organized. There were police blocking traffic. They let the media in to see what was going on. And I talked to supporters who said that Yunior was being kept from leaving to prevent violent clashes between the government supporters and critics, to prevent blood from running in the streets. And that's the kind of tension you feel right now. And even though the government blocked the protests yesterday, that tension's not going anywhere.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Patrick Oppmann, CNN correspondent in Havana. Patrick, thanks.

OPPMANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.