“[Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is] now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great,” US President Donald Trump said. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
This short statement — whether or not it was said in jest — demonstrates just how tone deaf Trump is when it comes to speaking about authoritarian strongmen.
There are two problematic parts to Trump’s statement, which was given at a fundraiser in Florida on March 3.
The first issue is Trump calling Xi “great.” While the US president is apparently tirelessly working to “Make America Great Again,” the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has already achieved that high level of praise.
This “great” man is leading one of the most egregious crackdowns on personal freedoms in the 21st century. Xi commands what can best be described as an Orwellian surveillance state.
This term gets thrown about loosely, but to contextualize the amount of surveillance in China, it is worth mentioning a story from December last year.
A BBC reporter wanted to highlight the all-seeing nature of Chinese surveillance; he was able to partner with Chinese authorities to see how long he could go before being “apprehended.” It took CCTV only seven minutes to locate the reporter.
The BBC report said: “170 million CCTV cameras are already in place and an estimated 400 million new ones will be installed in the next three years.”
This technology is used for public safety, but also to track and monitor dissidents across the country.
That has come in handy for the CCP, because over the past few years, it has passed laws restricting the ability of foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to remain in the country. The law vaguely states that NGOs “must not endanger China’s national unity, security or ethnic unity; and must not harm China’s national interests, societal public interest.”
In February, religious regulations took effect that would give the party the ability to crack down on worshipers in the name of public order. In the province of Xinjiang, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has created re-education camps, where China’s Uighur minority — most of whom are Muslims — learn how to become better citizens.
The “great” Xi uses these technological developments and vague laws to crack down on public expression in order to keep the party in power by removing any threats before they have the chance to gain momentum.
The second issue with Trump’s statement is the part about how “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.”
At best, this is a really bad joke, but with how Trump’s supporters revere him and the hyper-partisanship in the US, it is not something to make light of.
When the President of the United States refers to the press as the “opposition party” and when a candidate for the US House of Representatives body-slams a reporter one day before an election, these statements must be taken seriously.
Does Trump want to stay in power for life or was it a joke? Who knows? What matters is how his supporters interpret the remark.
Moreover, what matters just as much is how other authoritarian strongmen interpret the remarks. Instead of explicitly criticizing the rise of authoritarianism in China, Trump is joking about it.
When asked about the proposed amendments to the PRC constitution, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said: “I believe that’s a decision for China to make about what’s best for their country.”
As the so-called leader of the free world, the US should be taking this issue much more seriously than the Trump administration has handled it so far.
Regrettably, this is not the first time that Trump has missed the mark on criticizing these leaders and their move away from democracy.
In April last year, Trump actually congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the country voted to increase his powers, even though the vote was largely criticized by the international community. In 2013, Trump (in)famously tweeted about Russian President Vladimir Putin becoming his new “best friend.”
By joking about Xi’s power grab in China and refusing to condemn the move, Trump and his administration continue to send one message that is loud and clear: The US does not care about democracy or human rights.
Is this the message that the US wants to send?
Thomas Shattuck is the editor of Geopoliticus: The FPRI Blog and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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