'President for life'? Donald Trump's remarks about Xi Jinping find fans in China

US President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2017.
US President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - The comment was made behind closed doors, and appeared to be in jest: President Donald Trump told donors on Saturday (March 3) that China's president, Xi Jinping, was now "president for life," and added: "I think it's great. Maybe we'll want to give that a shot someday."

The remarks, confirmed by a leading Republican lobbyist who attended the luncheon at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, were first aired by CNN, which obtained an audio recording of his comments.

The statement, which drew laughter from those in attendance and was said by a smiling president, according to the lobbyist, was given on a day when Trump was out for laughs.

On Saturday evening, at the annual Gridiron dinner in Washington, Trump jokingly said of possible talks with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un: "As far as the risk of dealing with a madman is concerned, that's his problem, not mine."

Nonetheless, the remarks appeared to be the first comments made by Trump about China's decision to scuttle the two terms for its presidency - part of a remarkable consolidation of power around Xi - and Chinese analysts took it seriously, even if it was done tongue-in-cheek.

That Trump left the impression of a positive endorsement from Trump was "unexpected" and "matters for China," said Zhang Baohui, a professor of international relations at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

"Chinese leaders care very little whether Trump is seen negatively outside China," he said. "The US still represents the reference point for China."

The Trump comments would be especially welcome because Xi's step toward dictatorship was a sensitive issue inside China, and one about which public discussion has been barred.

Trump, an admirer of strongman leadership, has prided himself on his good personal relationship with Xi, even as Washington differs with Beijing on major issues from trade to North Korea. Xi accorded Trump a lavish state visit to Beijing last November that the president has enthused about ever since.

Leaders of democracies, including US allies in Europe and Asia, have abstained from criticising Xi, concerned, in part, by retaliatory economic reprisals. Authoritarian governments from Russia to Turkey have remained quiet, offering no explicit support but apparently confident of the growing acceptance of one-man rule, analysts said.

China's state-run media has given minimal coverage to the Communist Party leadership's decision to change the constitution. The tightening of Xi's power is considered so delicate that censors have squashed online commentary of almost any kind.

 
 

Similarly, Trump's remarks were not carried on Chinese television, online or in the state-run newspapers. When CNN, which is restricted in the venues it can broadcast in China, reported Trump's comments on Sunday, censors turned television screens blank.

"What Trump said should give Xi a modest boost," said Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Ordinary Chinese who support Xi are likely to latch on to Trump's validation, even though Trump is viewed by many Western observers as an embattled president, said Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.

"Chinese people who really support this change will say: 'Look, we are great. The superpower has endorsed our way,'" Shen said.

A nearly two-week long meeting of the national legislature, the National People's Congress, which opens in Beijing on Monday, is scheduled to formalise the changes to the constitution and abolish the two-term limit on the presidency.

At a news conference on Sunday to highlight the main events at the Congress, the spokesman for the legislature, Zhang Yesui, played down Xi's decision to scrap the two-term rule for the presidency.

Asked by a Western reporter whether the amendment scrapping two term limits meant Xi would be leader for life, Zhang ducked the question.

The changes were just intended to bring the presidency in line with two other positions Xi holds: general secretary of the Communist Party and general secretary and chairman of the commission that oversees the military, Zhang said. Neither post has a term limit.

The new arrangement "will help to strengthen and improve the national leadership system," Zhang said.

The failure of Western leaders to speak out against Xi's plans for limitless power was in step with a growing acceptance among democracies of one-man rule in many countries, said François Godement, director of the Asia and China program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"Criticism has been confined to human rights 'excesses,'" and even those were limited, Godement said. "The mode of government is no longer addressed."

During a visit in January, President Emmanuel Macron of France warned China that it should not create "vassal states" and should not act as a hegemonic power as it expanded its influence across Asia and Europe with its infrastructure programme, the Belt and Road Initiative.

Macron was careful to limit his comments to "economic rules of the road" and not trespass into the question of governance inside China, Godement said.

In Japan, where adversarial relations with China are growing slightly warmer, the government has so far not commented.

In Australia, where a national debate is roiling over China's meddling in the country's domestic affairs, the government has also stayed quiet.

The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was fearful of economic consequences that would rattle its vital trade relationship with China if it spoke out, China experts said.

"Australia is silent because America, the self-styled leader of the 'free world' after World War II, has abdicated that role under Trump," said Feng Zhang, a fellow at the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University.

"Australia's accusation of Chinese interference in its domestic affairs has elicited a chilly response from Beijing. It doesn't want to make a bad situation worse."

In the United States, political observers lamented Trump's latest off-the-cuff remark.

"Donald Trump has the strange habit of being completely transparent about his deepest desires, despite his long track record of false or misleading statements," said Yascha Mounk, the author of The People Vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is In Danger And How To Save It, and a political scientist.

"We shouldn't take his joke as a declaration of intent, but we should absolutely take it as evidence that he deeply admires dictators like Xi Jinping and would be tempted to emulate some of their repressive policies if he could."

In his remarks, Trump may have inadvertently hearkened to the emperors who ruled China until 1912.

"'President for life,' is of course, very much in the imperial tradition and this may give the notion a certain historical resonance in China," said Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.

"In the US, however, the idea is an utter anathema to everything the Founding Fathers believed and the carefully crafted Constitution they bequeathed us that was explicitly designed to limit just such a drift toward monarch or autocracy."