“Don’t forget China’s great and Xi is a great gentleman. He’s now president for life,” Trump told Republican backers, who erupted in laughter in response to the remarks made Saturday at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
The comments come as China’s national parliament gathers in Beijing for two weeks of meetings expected to culminate in Xi’s appointment to a second term and a constitutional change allowing him to stay on indefinitely. The Communist Party announced the planned amendment Feb. 25, in a surprising break with succession practices set up after Mao Zedong’s fraught tenure.
“And look, he was able to do that,” Trump said. “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day,” he said, prompting more laughter.
The US leader also described Xi as “the most powerful president in 100 years, you know, person in 100 years in China.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
When asked about China’s term-limits move last week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called it a “decision for China to make about what’s best for their country.”
“The president has talked about term limits in a number of capacities during the campaign,” Sanders said. “It’s something that he supports here in the United States. But that’s a decision that would be up to China.”
The president has spoken positively of Xi’s rapid consolidation of power, telling Fox Business News in October that “some people might call him the king of China.” Still, the Trump administration has branded China a “revisionist” power and describes the country’s efforts to alter international norms as a threat to US security.
The U.S. president’s tenure is limited to two full terms under the 22nd Amendment, which received the requisite support from two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states in 1951. Changing the Chinese constitution is much easier, requiring approval from two-thirds of the National People’s Congress, which has historically voiced little opposition to the leadership’s proposals.
The plan to repeal term limits has prompted unusually open expressions of dissent in China. Li Datong, a former senior editor at the official China Youth Daily newspaper, wrote a public letter to urge China’s legislators to vote against the move. Li said the move made the country vulnerable to repeating the power struggles of past eras.
“It planted the seeds for China to once again fall into turmoil,” Li wrote.
— With assistance by Justin Sink, Margaret Talev, and Jing Yang De Morel