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Presidents and 'presidents'

Presidents and 'presidents'
© Getty Images

“The time has come,” the walrus said,
 “to talk of many things: 
of [Presidents, both true and fake,
and] cabbages and kings ...
And why the sea is boiling hot, 
and whether pigs have wings.”  
— Apologies to Lewis Carroll

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Dems want hearing on DOD role on coronavirus vaccine | US and India sign data-sharing pact | American citizen kidnapped in Niger McEnany appears on Fox in 'personal capacity' as Trump campaign adviser US signs satellite data-sharing pact with India, warns of Chinese threats MORE congratulated Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on the occasion of her Second Inauguration and called her “courage and vision in leading Taiwan’s vibrant democracy an inspiration to the region and the world.” It was the highest expression of support for a Taiwan president ever made by a sitting U.S. Secretary of State.

Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, in fluent Mandarin, and other U.S. officials also sent congratulatory messages. The secretary and his administration colleagues all addressed her as President Tsai.

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Predictably, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) expressed its “strong indignation” and said Pompeo “seriously violated” the “one China” principle and the three communiques. It condemned all the officials’ references to Tsai as president of a separate political entity. But, unlike the occasion of Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996, it did not fire missiles toward the island to protest.

Former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, also tweeted congratulations but seemed to comply at least partially with China’s demands by referring to Taiwan’s newly reelected leader as “Dr.” rather than as president.

By happenstance, on the same day as Tsai’s swearing-in, the Washington Post ran a story on the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, which has excluded Taiwan from participation under Beijing’s pressure. The Post article referred to “President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE” (no Donald) and to “Chinese leader Xi Jinping”  (no President). 

Even more interesting, the caption to the montage of photos accompanying the Post story listed the national heads of state as follows: “Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga … Chinese leader Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronChechen leader: Macron's stance on Muhammad cartoons 'forcing people into terrorism' Turkey's Erdoğan calls for boycott of French goods after Macron defends Muhammad cartoons Two students were paid to identify slain French teacher, authorities say MORE, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.” 

If avoiding the title of president for Xi was the Post’s intent, it could have used one of his other, more appropriate, positions such as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. While the Chinese Embassy in Washington surely reads the local/national paper every day, it has not revealed whether it noted the asymmetry in titles in the Post’s reporting and registered a protest. But, except for one later photo caption that referred to Xi only as “China’s top leader,” subsequent Post articles made sure to refer to him as “President Xi.”

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Historians and scholars generally ascribe the title of president to a national government’s democratically elected head chosen directly or indirectly by the people. The position and the term originated in the United States in 1787 and the first head of state to bear the title of president was George Washington.

Several Latin American and Caribbean nations, after liberation from Spanish rule, soon set up republics and elected presidents as their national leaders. The first European ruler to adopt the title, but for distinctly nondemocratic purposes, was Napoleon Bonaparte, proclaiming himself President of the Italian Republic in 1802 before going on to become King of Italy and Emperor of France.

The first Asian government to make its national leader president was the Republic of China in 1912 and the man was Sun Yat-sen. 

After the eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as Paramount Leaders, the CCP found it useful to seek the patina of international respect and democratic legitimacy that was accorded the title of president and enjoyed by leaders of the United States and other democracies. Jiang Zemin was the first Chinese leader to use the title of president on a regular basis with foreign audiences. But neither he nor his successors had any intention of adopting Western democratic methods to elect the Chinese president. Instead, they followed the authoritarian Napoleonic model and simply appropriated the honorific.

Xi clearly relishes Western officials and media calling him president and putting him on the same level of official respect and international legitimacy as the American president. Trump, who prefers to call most world leaders by their first names to show his personal familiarity with them, seems only too happy to address and refer to the Chinese leader as President Xi, rather than as Jinping. Xi so enjoys the title and the power that goes with it that he has discarded the CCP’s tradition of two five-year terms and made himself president-and-everything-else for life.

George Washington, America’s and the world’s first president and called “the indispensable man” for his time, was offered such a lifetime position. He declined it, believing that no man is indispensable and confident in the knowledge that the young country of less than half a million people eligible to serve had plenty of perfectly capable leaders who could move it forward on its freedom destiny. Xi and his CCP comrades do not believe the Chinese people are capable of finding competent alternative leaders among China’s 1.3 billion population. More likely, they fear that the real China dream is the same as the American Dream and of people around the world: freedom.

Perhaps some day “President” Xi will demonstrate the same political courage that President Tsai has shown twice by taking her case to the Taiwanese people and respecting their judgment.  President Trump also relies on the democratic process to pursue his vision of America’s future, and, like Tsai, is willing to have the American people judge his record and decide whether they want to continue with his leadership. He might want to suggest that his Chinese friend give it a try. After all, Xi is supremely convinced that only he is fit to govern China and that the Chinese people must surely agree, so Trump might ask him, “What do you have to lose?”

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.