The comment was made behind closed doors, and appeared to be in jest: President Trump told donors on Saturday 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.”
Nonetheless, the remarks appeared to be the first comments made by Mr. Trump about China’s decision to scuttle the two terms for its presidency — part of a remarkable consolidation of power around Mr. Xi — and Chinese analysts took them seriously.
At the luncheon, Mr. Trump also called Mr. Xi “a great gentleman” and “the most powerful president in 100 years,” who treated the American leader “tremendously well” during his state visit there in November.
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That Mr. Trump left the impression of a positive endorsement of Mr. Xi 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 U.S. still represents the reference point for China.”
The Trump comments would be especially welcome because Mr. Xi’s step toward dictatorship was a sensitive issue inside China, and one about which public discussion has been barred.
Mr. Trump, an admirer of strongman leadership, has prided himself on his good personal relationship with Mr. Xi, even as Washington differs with Beijing on major issues from trade to North Korea. Mr. Xi accorded Mr. Trump a lavish state visit to Beijing last November that the president has enthused about ever since.
Leaders of democracies, including America’s allies in Europe and Asia, have abstained from criticizing Mr. 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 Mr. Xi’s power is considered so delicate that censors have squashed online commentary of almost any kind.
Similarly, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Xi are likely to latch on to Mr. Trump’s validation, even though Mr. 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,’” Mr. Shen said.