California Gov. Newsom’s Visit to China Demonstrated Lack of Statesmanship


During a speech in January, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared that “In our finest hours, California has always been freedom’s force multiplier, protecting liberty from a rising tide of oppression taking root in statehouses, weaknesses masquerading as strength, small men in big offices.”

The talk sounded statesmanlike, but statesmanship is not about spouting words in a manner reminiscent of John F. Kennedy Jr. As a piece in the Art of Manliness summarized, a true statesman “does not make his countrymen’s hearts soar and burn with empty promises; he keeps his word and does what he says he will do.” He or she builds consensus by convincing the public of “the soundness of his philosophy.”

The most glaring problem with Newsom’s words is that they are self-evidently not so, plus he’s not convincing anyone of anything with his cram-down approach to climate policy. Historically, California has indeed been a place that beckoned people from across the world—a blank slate where people regardless of their background could build a prosperous life.

Yet our government knows little else beyond stifling regulation and punitive taxation. Across the globe, people tend to flee more oppressive places (even if they have great scenery and weather) for freer locales. In 2022, 817,000 Californians left for other states—a net loss of 342,000 residents. We’re losing the equivalent of the population of Anaheim every year—and there are few signs that the exodus is slowing.

I regularly document the problems and loss of freedom here. But Newsom’s hypocritical words jumped out after watching the press coverage of his tour last week of communist China. A true statesman isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. Yet Newsom received well-deserved brickbats for meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping and not mentioning that country’s well-documented human-rights abuses.

The U.S. State Department details the following Chinese policies toward the minority Uyghur population: “Documented human rights abuses include coercive population control methods, forced labor, arbitrary detention in internment camps, torture, physical and sexual abuse, mass surveillance, family separation and repression of cultural and religious expression.”

Instead of even gently raising those freedom issues, Newsom posed with Xi, toured an electric-vehicle factory and talked about climate change. The latter is legitimate. “The world’s most populous country processes the vast majority of rare metals needed for electric car batteries,” CalMatters reported. If human-caused emissions are the root of a warming climate, then China and India—the source of most of those emissions—need to be part of the discussion.

But they needn’t be the only points of discussion. When asked about his refusal to tackle the human rights issue, Newsom gave reporters a typically glib response: “I can’t be everything to everybody at every moment of every minute of every day.” Newsweek also quoted a Human Rights Watch official who said this strategy abetted Chinese efforts to downplay the human rights matter.

Newsom’s comments from January were an obvious attempt to needle conservative states about their policies regarding abortion and LGBTQ rights. Newsom keeps playing this “I’m not running, but I’m ready” game as he gallivants around the country and world holding events typically held by candidates. He’s even planning a debate with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is running for president. The purpose of that debate is anyone’s guess.

It’s nothing new for governors to parade on the international stage, whether or not they are running for president. Former Gov. Jerry Brown went to China in 2017 to give a keynote address at an energy conference and made this overwrought pronouncement: “Nothing is more difficult. Nothing is more important. … We’re talking about turning around the whole of modernity.”

Newsom should at least try to make these meetings as substantive as possible. Instead, he’s just serving as a prop for a tyranny because, like Brown, he apparently believes that climate change poses such an existential crisis that nothing else really matters.

When asked about critics who complain that he’s in China when major problems such as homelessness are festering at home, Newsom gave an answer worthy of a fanatic rather than a statesman: “Our soil is becoming aridified because of climate change!” He insists that he’s still focused on California problems, but the latest news reports—e.g., huge delays in his homeless housing proposals—suggest otherwise.

Not that Republicans have gotten this statesmanship thing down, either. Donald Trump’s narcissism is the opposite of statesmanship (and he lavished praise on various despots). Perhaps I’m spoiled, because I came of age politically with the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan. I remember his words to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the Brandenburg Gate: “Tear down this wall.”

That’s more moving than Newsom’s words from China: “Addressing climate change can be the bridge we’ve been missing.” Then again, former Gov. Reagan was a statesman and current Gov. Newsom seems like the latest in a long line of “small men in big offices.”

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.