A Tale of Two Visitors

What a strange week it was: Pope Francis arriving in the east and President Xi Jinping arriving in the west.  One had just come from preaching in Cuba in the wake of US-Cuba normalization of relations, which the Vatican was instrumental in arranging; the other had come from preaching order in China—in the markets, in the streets, and in the communist party—in the wake of mounting U.S. criticism of Chinese cyberattacks and human-rights violations.  The pope offered a moral message linked to preservation of freedom, support for immigrants, and hopes to save the earth’s environment, while China’s president reassured the titans of U.S. technology and other businesses of his country’s economic strength.  Profit or morality, obligations to growth versus obligations to people and the future—a quick description of the crossroads at which the world stands.

Francis is often praised for being humble, modest, and—as President Obama put it—for having “generosity of spirit.”  While the Vatican can be as opaque as Zhongnanhai (Chinese Communist Party headquarters in Beijing), Francis clearly enjoys being with ordinary people and speaking on their behalf.  Since being anointed pope, he has constantly spoken of the need to fight poverty, the links between poverty and environmental destruction, and the excesses of capitalism.  Xi, a mysterious and secretive figure who struggles to present himself as a man of the people, is busy cracking down on lawyers, protesters, journalists, and other actual or potential troublemakers.  To me this repression suggests an insecure leader determined above all to protect the party-state’s power.  (The contrast may also reflect their different backgrounds—Francis, whose father emigrated from Italy to escape Mussolini; Xi, from a family within the communist party elite that was victimized by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.)

Both men head a huge bureaucracy and seem determined to clean houses marked by major scandals.  But Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has been accompanied by protection and promotion of the financial interests of his circle of family and friends.  He punishes rivals and wields extraordinary control over all major policy levers.

It may seem silly to compare these two visitors, who come with such different leadership responsibilities and represent vastly different constituencies.  Still, it is noteworthy that the pope received lavish attention everywhere he went, with enormous crowds and extraordinary media coverage.  Xi Jinping, no match for Francis, was practically invisible while Francis was around; and when he did appear in public, protesters had to be kept at a distance from him. As Howard French observes, Chinese leaders have yet to master so-called soft power.  Unlike the pope, who always comes across as a real person, with Xi “ … everything is scripted. There’s little give-and-take.  Speeches are full of stock phrases.” Instead of getting hugs, Xi got considerable criticism for acts that at the least raise questions about China’s respect for basic human rights at home and uncompromising actions abroad (I’m thinking especially of repression in Tibet and unilateral moves—the Wall Street Journal called them instances of “Chinese aggression”—to assert China’s claims in the disputed South China Sea islands).

What did these two visitors accomplish?  The pope, as expected, pushed a mostly progressive agenda that no doubt left Republican leaders gnashing their teeth.  After all, as one close observer, Wen Stephenson, has written that Pope Francis “has embraced liberation theology, and its deep critique of structural economic injustice and oppression, with open arms.”  

China’s leader probably paved the way for new high-tech deals and may for the time being have placated Obama by calling for a cooperative approach to cyber security.  More significantly, Xi indicated that China, starting in 2017, would implement a cap-and-trade system to deal with carbon emissions from industry—the same idea Obama tried and failed to get Congressional agreement on in 2010.  And at the U.N., Xi pledged $2 billion to aid the poorest countries, though it is unclear if the money will be in loans, grants, or debt relief.

Did either visitor leave an indelible mark on this country?  Doubtful; but at least we may say of Francis that he impacted the lives of many individuals who were fortunate enough to see or hear him. His call for action on climate change, global poverty, and immigration was insistent and eloquent; it advanced the cause of environmental rights (which he identified as such in his speech at the U.N.) and social justice.  President Xi did not bring a hopeful message; he came mainly to do business and vigorously defend Chinese policies.  If the cap-and-trade plan on carbon emissions is faithfully implemented nationwide, it would be a worthy accomplishment.  But that’s a big “if.”  He and certain people along the Beltway would do well to heed the pope’s message in his speech to the U.S. Congress: “If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.”

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.