China’s authoritarian leader took power in 2012 and had been expected to rule until 2023. However, last week it emerged that Xi would attempt to use an annual meeting of China’s parliament, which kicks off on Monday morning, to abolish presidential term limits by changing the Chinese constitution.
Liberals have condemned the power grab, which will almost certainly be approved by members of the National People’s Congress who have flocked to Beijing for the two-week summit. Experts say the amendment paves the way for Xi to be China’s ruler-for-life. “This is a critical moment in China’s history,” Cheng Li, a prominent expert in elite Chinese politics who has criticised the move, told AP.
However, Trump offered a more positive assessment during a fundraising event at his Mar-a-Lago estate, where he hosted Xi last April. “He’s now president for life. President for life. And he’s great,” the US president reportedly told Republican donors.
“And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll give that a shot some day,” Trump added, according to CNN which obtained a recording of what it described as an upbeat, joke-filled speech.
Even before Trump’s controversial remarks Chinese activists and dissidents had voiced disappointment over the lack of criticism from western governments and leaders.
“This kind of reaction is very short-sighted,” said Zhou Fengsuo, a democracy activist who has lived in exile since fleeing the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
“This kind of permanent leadership never ends well … history tells us it will not just be a Chinese issue, it will have a deep and profound influence on the world ... [China] will see a lot of uncertainty and likely conflict because of this.”
The topic of Xi’s power grab is so politically sensitive within China that nearly all of the academics approached by the Guardian for comment in the lead-up to Monday’s congress declined to talk.
Xing Hua, the only Chinese scholar who agreed to be interviewed, claimed foreign journalists were “over-interpreting” and “over-emphasising” the move. “I hope western media can view this proposal in a comprehensive and objective manner,” said Xing, from the China Institute of International Studies, a state-run think tank.
However, western experts say they are convinced Xi’s plan is to rule for many years to come.
“He’s now 64. So he has got at least 20 years [left in him] … that would take him almost to the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic [in 2049],” said Roderick MacFarquhar, a Harvard University China expert.
MacFarquhar said China’s “supreme ruler” was seeking to change China’s constitution rather than simply ignoring it, so as to avoid looking like “some sort of Banana Republic”. But the effect was the same: “He’s signalling: ‘I’m going to stay on forever.’”
“Dictators are always arrogant,” said Qiao Mu, a journalism professor who moved into exile in response to Xi’s reign. “It’s a disaster for political civilization.”
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