The Slatest

China’s “President for Life” Policy Is a Sign of Weakness. Or It Would Be, if Trump Hadn’t Praised It.

U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping.
U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

The news from China over the past week has fully put to bed the notion that the country is on a path toward a more open and democratic political system. The country’s leaders are fully confident that their authoritarian model is the one best suited for the country. What’s less clear now is whether America’s president feels the same way about our own system.

Following last week’s announcement that China will be scrapping presidential term limits, paving the way for indefinite rule by President Xi Jinping, the Economist published an editorial that functions as a mea culpa for the optimism of Western liberals over the past three decades that China’s economic opening up would open up the country’s politics as well. China’s hybrid of market capitalism and one-party rule along Leninist lines has proved much more durable than most people in the West expected. The Economist also fretted about China’s newfound interest in exporting its political model abroad:

China used to profess no interest in how other countries run themselves, so long as it was left alone. Increasingly, however, it holds its authoritarian system up as a rival to liberal democracy. At the party’s 19th congress last autumn, Mr Xi offered “a new option for other countries” that would involve “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” Mr Xi later said that China would not export its model, but you sense that America now has not just an economic rival, but an ideological one, too.

It’s true that China’s state media has been increasingly touting its “development miracle” to the developing world as an alternative to the Western consensus. Governments in poor countries have long been interested in China’s money and are increasingly interested in its ideas as well. And why not? The Chinese model promises that economic prosperity is possible without forcing political elites to surrender power. It makes autocracy respectable.

There’s ample reason to pay attention to China’s efforts to flex its ideological muscles abroad, including the Communist Party’s training programs for African bureaucrats, the increasing leverage Beijing wields over countries that receive investment as part of its global One Belt One Road Initiative, growing concern about the influence of Chinese-funded organizations on global university campuses, as well as Beijing’s increasing willingness to pursue dissidents abroad and pressure foreign companies that stray from the party orthodoxy on topics like the Dalai Lama and Taiwan.

Still, this is all relatively modest compared with the Soviet Union’s aggressive efforts to spread its style of communism during the Cold War or America’s own ideological influence abroad today. And it remains to be seen whether China’s system is durable enough to weather this seeming transition from a rules-based institutional autocracy into a one-man dictatorship. Xi’s personal ambitions may ultimately have punctured the notion that China’s system is inherently more stable.

So, there’s no reason to be anxious that the newly elevated official ideology of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” is going to set the world on fire. Or at least there wouldn’t be, if the president of the United States weren’t declaring himself a fan of it.

Trump discussed China’s abolishing of term limits at an event Saturday with Republican donors at Mar-a-Lago, saying, “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great. And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”

As with much of “Donald Trump Thought,” the idea he’s expressing here is somehow both idiotic and fascinatingly complex. For one thing, Trump is actually undercutting China’s propaganda. Xi has not been declared “president for life,” and the country’s senior officials and state media would never frame it that way. In paying Xi a compliment, Trump is actually endorsing his critics’ argument that the Chinese leader is becoming an unaccountable dictator, putting his pal in an awkward position.

Trump is also clearly joking when he says, “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot,” but only in the sense that he was also joking in 2016 when he said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” The lighthearted tone gives him plausible deniability, while making clear that he doesn’t actually find the idea he’s kidding about to be deeply objectionable.

Given Trump’s past statements about Xi’s status, as well as his attaboys to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on their moves to consolidate power, there’s enough evidence to conclude that Trump does not find authoritarian power grabs objectionable.

Trump might say that it’s not America’s place to lecture other governments on their countries’ internal politics. “Democracy promotion” understandably doesn’t have the best name right now. (Trump’s recent attacks on George W. Bush’s war in Iraq are harder to argue with.) There ought to be a vigorous and serious debate about when, whether, and with what methods the U.S. should attempt to promote democracy overseas. Doing so is not always productive or justifiable. That said, there ought to be agreement across the political spectrum that, at a bare minimum, the president of the United States should believe that democracy is the preferable system.

Yes, there have been the familiar bromides about freedom and human rights in scripted remarks like the State of the Union or last year’s address to the United Nations, as well as calculated attacks on the abuses of governments like Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. But when Trump speaks off the cuff, it’s not entirely clear he does believe in this. For that matter, an administration unwilling to do even the bare minimum to prevent election meddling by another authoritarian power—Russia—clearly has little interest in protecting America’s own democracy, much less any other country’s. European leaders—who until recently had enthusiastically greeted Xi’s soothing rhetoric about free trade and the rules-based international order, viewing him as a potential hedge to Trump’s erratic populism—seem unlikely to pick up the torch.

The Pentagon, according to the recently released National Security Strategy, views the global era we’re entering as a return to “great power competition” against adversaries like China and Russia, after two decades of focusing on terrorism. If that competition is also a battle of ideologies and political beliefs, it’s starting to look like only one side is interested in fighting.