10-1-15 – President Xi’s Swag vs the Pope’s Black Fiat

by John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS—Both Pope Francis and China’s President visited the United States at the same time. Two men whose paths nearly intersected, but did not touch, in New York at the United Nations are each leaders of 1.2 billion people; the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, and Comrade President Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic of China. Pope Francis arrived amid White House pomp and circumstance ceremonies rather improbably in a little black Fiat. President Xi goes around in black limos as one would expect.

Pope Francis, a Jesuit from Argentina brings a pastoral message but often swerves into politics. President Xi a Politburo hardliner visits America both with his business portfolio and the swagger of China’s new paramount ruler. Both leaders were making their first state visits to the U. S.

Both men represent a curious juxtaposition of faith and values; the Pope representing the Catholic Church, a major world religion, while Xi represents the officially atheist PRC.

Contrary to an earlier generation, China’s leaders no longer preach the revolutionary zeal of communist doctrine; yet the PRC’s faith still rests on one party rule, stifling political authoritarianism, and now crony capitalism. Still despite the rigid PRC political rulebook, since the 1980’s commercial changes in Mainland China have created sufficient wealth to lift millions out of poverty, raise others into the middle class, and propel some to a high flying super rich. The common thread is often the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but a richer quilt it is.

Increasingly so, Beijing’s communist system can only rule the indifferent faithful with the unquestionable lure of economic consumerism and high octane nationalism. The formula has worked, the masses seem to have been mollified, and the genie of political democratization has apparently been forced back into the bottle after Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Beijing’s balm to its people has been an unquestionably better economy, a rising middle class, and the chance to leave China for holidays, be it to Western Europe, the USA, and even Taiwan. The ostentatious shopping, kitschy consumerism, and vulgar bling bling habits are on display from Paris to New York and Las Vegas.

Xi Jinping first visited Seattle and the Microsoft Campus as to reforge business ties with the high tech industry titans. The Who’s Who’s of American high tech turned out to meet, greet and   gently chide the PRC leader for China’s wide-ranging computer hacking, forced technology transfer, and internet blocking of Facebook and Google. Of course its all about business, market access, and in Seattle Boeings, so most of the American execs were on best behavior.

President Xi spoke about an Internet in step with China’s “national realities,” (read censorship, and blocking), as well as wishing for a “secure, stable, and prosperous” cyberspace.

While in Washington, President Xi was feted at the White House while also having clear and frank discussions about Beijing’s complicity in massive cybercrime in the USA ranging from the alleged hacking of U.S. government employee records/files, the wider challenge of cyber warfare, and the clear and present danger of the PRC’s island building and naval muscle-flexing in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

Growing tensions between Beijing and Washington, never far from the surface, need to be managed not grandstanded.   Still there’s a mixed mood in Mainland China; that of a flagging domestic economy but bolstered by the nationalist patriotism of a massive military buildup. There’s a fine line for the USA to tread in Pacific waters.

The Obama Administration’s much vaunted Pacific Pivot, much more style over substance,     politically irks Beijing but does appreciably little to genuinely rebalance the power from a militarily growing China and offset it with a robust American naval presence.

Pope Francis addressed the UN first, with his universal message of piety, peace, and yes politics; the dogma of climate change and of course sustainable development. But he placed his message in the context of respect for human dignity.

The Pontiff spoke of the “phenomenon of social and economic exclusion with its baneful consequences: human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of boys and girls, slave labor including prostitution, the drug and weapons trade, terrorism and international organized crime.”

Pope Francis stressed the painful situation in the Middle East and “where Christians, together with other cultural and ethnic groups” have faced death, enslavement and the destruction of their churches.

Xi’s address to the UN used the broad strokes of China’s “independent foreign policy of peace,” with nods to multilateralism and equitable economic development.

Two men so vastly different yet both navigating tricky political waters in America.


John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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