(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Agriculture Department’s top trade official called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “communist zealot,” as he warned farmers the Asian leader is a tough adversary in negotiations.
Ted McKinney, the department’s undersecretary for trade, offered the provocative characterization of the Chinese leader Monday at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations. After a summer of bombast and tariff escalation the two sides have agreed to hold face-to-face working-level staff talks in the coming weeks and a ministerial meeting in Washington in early October.
Throughout the trade conflict and even as economic relations have deteriorated, Trump has also been careful in his personal dealings with Xi.
McKinney offered a harsh assessment of the Chinese leader as he defended Trump’s trade war during a speech to the National Farmers Union, which has been critical of the tariff fight and the economic losses it has caused U.S. agricultural producers.
“Let me just tell you what: Mr. Xi Jinping is a communist zealot. He sees himself very much in the spirit of Mao Zedong,” McKinney said in remarks to 380 farmers the group gathered in Washington to lobby the government.
He also aired complaints the Asian nation suppresses church attendance. McKinney said that members of the Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service, which has diplomatic representatives stationed around China, have reported that Xi’s government has stepped up a crackdown on church attendance.
“Chinese nationals are not allowed to go to church: No, no, no, no, no, no -- off limits,” McKinney said.
McKinney nonetheless said he was “encouraged” that trade talks are moving in the right direction. Earlier in the year “we were negotiating very well,” he said.
“I hope we can pick up where we last left off. But I’m only 50-50,” McKinney said.
McKinney was appointed to the U.S. Agriculture Department post after serving as Indiana’s state agriculture director, a job he was hired for by then-Indiana governor Mike Pence.
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