Donald Trump has thumbed his nose at China’s draconian censorship regime as he touched down in Beijing on the latest leg of his 12-day east Asian tour.
China was last year labelled the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom and Trump’s favourite means of communication, Twitter, is blocked across the mainland along with other western social media outlets including Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
Asked by reporters onboard Air Force One whether this meant the US president would not tweet to his 42 million followers during his two-night stay in China, a senior White House official was defiant.
“No. The president will tweet whatever he wants. That’s his way of communicating directly with the American people. Why not?” the official was quoted as saying by a pooled report.
“I’m sure we’ve got the gear aboard this airplane to make it happen. But it is noteworthy that none of the major western platforms for social media are even allowed to operate in China.”
Twitter has been blocked in mainland China since 2009 as part of a sophisticated and wide-ranging Communist party attempt to stifle dissent and hobble foreign internet companies that might compete with Chinese rivals.
Since China’s president, Xi Jinping, took power in 2012, a major crackdown on free speech and human rights has seen well-known bloggers and activists jailed. According to Agence France-Presse, Chinese internet users can be sentenced to three years in prison for writing defamatory messages that are reposted 500 times.
Trump landed in a cloudy Beijing at 2.49pm local time (1849 GMT) and was whisked westwards towards the 15th-century Forbidden City.
There the US president was greeted by Xi and China’s first lady, the pop star Peng Liyuan.
“Trump made pleasantries with Xi,” as they toured the deserted tourist attraction, according to the pooled report, although his precise words were inaudible.
In an apparent bid to underline Beijing’s desire for congenial US-China relations, Trump was shown around three of the imperial compound’s main areas: the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Hall of Central Harmony and the Hall of Preserving Harmony.
According to China’s official news agency, Xinhua, Trump then sat down for tea with his host in a former antiques store within the Forbidden City called the Hall of Embodied Treasures. Propaganda photographs released by Xinhua showed Trump appearing to listen intently to his Chinese host.
“With a tablet computer, Trump showed Xi and Peng video clips of his granddaughter, Arabella Kushner, singing in mandarin and reciting ancient Chinese poems,” Xinhua reported.
“Xi spoke highly of the child’s Chinese skills and said her performance deserves an “A+.”
Beijing is extending a welcome fit for an emperor to Trump as it seeks to win over the mercurial US commander-in-chief. As well as visiting the Ming dynasty centre of imperial rule, he will be fêted with a banquet and a series of ceremonies at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.
As Trump landed in Beijing, Chinese media reports suggested a section of the Great Wall near the capital was to be closed on Friday, hinting that a visit from Trump or the first lady, Melania, was on the cards.
“Such hospitality is rarely seen in modern China,” the state-run Global Times gushed on Wednesday.
Experts say that for all the public enthusiasm for what they are calling Trump’s “state visit-plus”, Chinese officials will be nervous that he could derail its carefully laid plans with a rogue tweet sent from behind the country’s Great Firewall.
Roderick MacFarquhar, a China expert at Harvard University, said: “What is worst about him, and must be a bit worrying for the Chinese, is that I don’t think Trump himself knows from one day to the next what he is going to say or do.
“His Twitter in the morning is based probably on what he saw on Fox News the night before. His judgments are totally self-interested … He’s a bit like Boris Johnson, only in a much worse place to exercise power.”
There was a minor hiccup on the eve of Trump’s arrival after reports emerged that three US college basketball players had been arrested in China for allegedly shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton shop in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
Three hours after landing on Chinese soil, Trump had yet to tweet. His last message was sent shortly before he took off from South Korea. “Looking very much forward to meeting and being with President Xi!” it said.