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Rachel Lu

Five Things China’s Leader and the New Pope Have in Common (And One Big Difference)

(Adam in the Style of Michelangelo Via Big Stock Photo)

Far from the Sistine Chapel, another world leader emerged from a rite steeped in tradition, protocol and ceremony.

“When white smoke comes out of the chapel, a pope is elected. When green smoke comes out of one’s ancestral tomb, a leader is elected,” tweeted @水刹那 on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter. The “green smoke” comment refers the Chinese saying for the occasions when blessing of ancestors brings fortune and honor to an individual. Today that individual is Xi Jinping, who took over as the Chinese Communist Party’s leader last November and is now elected as China’s new chairman by its rubberstamp parliament.

It is perhaps fitting that the “Under New Management” sign went up on the same day at the St. Peter’s Basilica and Zhongnanhai, for Xi Jinping and Pope Francis have more in common than most imagine. Here are the top five:

1. They both will act as shepherds of a huge population, a significant portion of which is agitating for change.

Xi Jinping is now the leader of 1.4 billion Chinese people, while Francis is in charge of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. After long periods of top-down enforced conformity, both populations are undergoing tremendous change and have become more vocal in challenging the old ways of thinking. Many Chinese are loudly calling for more political and social reforms, while many Catholics are also eager to see their church embrace new trends such as tolerance of female priests, married priests or same-sex marriage. However, both populations still contain a large number of people who oppose change.

2. They both took office after their predecessors bowed out gracefully.

“Is there a picture of the new pope shaking hands with the retiring one?” Asked economist Li Guangyuan (@光远看经济). He is referring to the Kodak moment when Xi Jinping shook hands with outgoing chairman Hu Jintao as the two exchanged power. Hu Jintao ceded all official titles to Xi Jinping, including the chairmanship of China’s military, and sent a strong signal that he does not want to meddle in politics after his retirement (but several of Hu’s close allies took top posts in Xi’s government, ensuring that some influence will remain). Similarly, Pope Benedict XVI indicated that he would go into quiet seclusion after his historical retirement.

3. They are both known to be conservative on key issues.

While a change at the top always brings excitement and new possibilities, both Xi and Francis have shown themselves to be stewards of the old way on important issues. Xi reportedly made a speech against “ideological heresy,” lest the Chinese Communist Party be led astray by democratizing forces like its big brother the CCCP during the last days of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the new Pope Francis is known to take a conservative stance on issues such as gay rights and contraception.

4. They both need to clamp down on scandals from rank and file.

Xi’s most urgent task is to tackle rampant corruption among officials that saps faith and confidence in the Communist Party. Pope Francis also needs to address the string of damaging scandals involving priests, even cardinals, that have plagued the Catholic church for years. Whether Xi and Pope Francis can successfully rein in their underlings will determine the future of their respective organizations.

5. They both want to be seen as frugal and caring about the poor.

Since last November, Xi Jinping has cultivated an image as a man of the people who prefers simplicity to grandeur. After he made speeches against extravagant banquets, a large number of reservations at Beijing’s top-end restaurants were cancelled and sales of expensive liquor plummeted. Before he became pope, Francis took bus to work and cooked his own meals, and is known for social outreach to the poor.

There is, of course, one important difference between Xi and Pope Francis — Xi’s election was a foregone conclusion while Francis’ election was seen as a surprise.

Somehow, without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, 99.8% of delegates of the National People’s Congress all agreed to elect Xi as China’s chairman. There was one lone dissenting vote. Many Chinese Internet users speculated that the person who voted against Xi either did it by mistake or was Xi himself, showing some obligatory humility.

@无名过客W tweeted on Sina Weibo with some irony,

“It took several days of hard work by a bunch of old cardinals to elect a new pope at the Vatican. There were five rounds of voting in secret. They’ve only managed some white smoke until this morning. That really cannot compare to elections at our great nation. In China, it only took one round of voting this morning to elect a whole bunch of leaders. That’s world-class efficiency. It was absolutely open and transparent to boot since the world knew about the outcome prior to the voting. How can you not be proud of it?”

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • China Shouts

    It is hard to compare religion with politics. Talking about the HS, how does one explain all the dark secrets of the Vatican? Surely, God, who is infallible, could not have had anointed the wrong chap and be the cause behind all those paedophiles, gay sex and myriads of consipracies?

    If the Pope is a lineage holder of St Peter, it is arguable that no matter what, he simply could not resign. But the last Pope did and another one centuries ago.

  • Jahar

    This is the worst article ever.

  • http://twitter.com/s0550166 Beau

    Pfft! I dont buy it, their both elitist hacks of an outgrown leadership system. Just because Francis appointment (non-democratic) was a surprise to the few people who had any inside knowledge doesn’t excuse him from the fact that the billion or so Catholics had no say one way or the other.. its just a legacy position for the millions of sheep that believe the world is 6000 years old!!

  • fluggg

    This is a very weak article and the comparisons couldn’t be vaguer. The criteria can be used to compare Xi Jinping to anyone. Ok lets try someone else.. I dunno… the British Queen.

    1.) They both act as shepherds (ok constitutional monarch) of a large population, a significant portion of which is agitating for change (Commonwealth population amounts to 21 % of world).

    2.) They are known to be conservative on key issues (duh).

    3.) They both want to be seen as frugal and caring about the poor (even if they both despise them).

    4.) They both need to clamp down on scandals from rank and file (Prince Harry and various former staff members).

    5.) They both took office after their predecessors bowed out gracefully (old George bowed out well after a good innings).