One arrived via Fiat. The other leads a Communist Party that can rule by fiat. One is savvy on social media. The other censors it. Both began their visits in Washington power centers: One in the nation’s political capital, the other in high-tech Seattle. Both got the White House red-carpet treatment, fitting for two of the most powerful people in the world visiting the most powerful man on the planet. Overall, this week’s statecraft and stagecraft from Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed a lot about the Catholic Church, China and America.
Xi’s Seattle start reflected his mercantile mission, “but China realizes that all roads lead to Congress, and the image they portray is important,” said Sherry Gray, director of Global Programs at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. This image, according to a Pew Research Center poll, is that only 38 percent of Americans have a favorable view of China and only 44 percent of Chinese view America favorably.
For China, the PR priority is more domestic than persuading Americans. But, Gray said, “you can’t deal with the United States without sending a message to [China’s] neighbors.” And neighboring nations are warily eyeing China’s maritime provocations.
“For the Chinese, they want to show a positive message,” Gray said. “But their main message is, ‘We need to be a rising power, we need to return to our position of prominence in Eurasia and how do we do it without antagonizing the United States?’ ”
Based on the sardined sidewalks and crowded congressional hallways, Francis wasn’t worried about antagonizing. And while his words had political impact, the open pope’s appeal was much more personal than the more opaque, political Xi.
“China is kind of allergic to this personality cult after Mao,” Gray said. “It’s a collective leadership system, and it’s not really acceptable to be an outsized leader like that. It makes it harder for Chinese leaders to relate to the American public.”
The soft-spoken pope may not have an outsized style, but he does have outsized popularity, according to a new New York Times poll. Fifty-three percent said the church is in touch “with the needs of Catholics today,” compared with 39 percent a month before he became pope. This may be because Francis has what so many politicians seek: authenticity. “Being humble is not staged,” said Massimo Faggioli, director of the Institute for Catholicism and Theology at the University of St. Thomas. Faggioli, taking a break between interviews on Italian public television and CNN, said that Francis “spent most of his career as a bishop with poor people, so he is really much more comfortable with humble things than flashy things.” However, he’s by now comfortable with the flash of cameras. “It’s fairly easy to get on the cover of Time,” Faggioli said. “It’s much harder to get on the cover of Rolling Stone.”
The pope also applies apps and other new media to a timeless faith.
Xi, meanwhile, made news about new media by visiting high-tech titans and pledging to curb the theft of intellectual property. It’s alleged that China was behind the hacking of U.S. Office of Personnel Management data, including millions of fingerprints.
Some significant similarities in the circumstances, if not agendas, of both leaders were evident this week. China’s high-flying economic model is gliding (or spiraling) toward lower growth. Overall, these geoeconomic models most profoundly impact the poor, the pope lamented. So too might climate change, so Francis likely welcomed Xi’s announcement of a cap-and-trade emissions plan that’s somewhat consistent with the pope’s encyclical and congressional address.
As for that address, the first by a pontiff, it wasn’t a separation of church and state, but a convergence of it, bringing a welcome moral moment to the deeply divided Capitol.
Afterward, Francis lunched not with the Senate or the House, but with the homeless. A more formal state dinner will take place for Xi, however, and he will receive a 21-gun salute. That kind of display was wisely skipped for Francis, who preached peace to his audience in Washington and the world.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.