When the Chinese government confirmed Xi Jingpin as the country’s president in March 2013, among the congratulatory letters received in Beijing was one from the newly elected Pope Francis. It was a nice touch from the leader of one “regime” to another, since the two have been at odds for decades over religious freedom.
Over the years, many observers have remarked on the similarity between the two dogmatic, highly regimented and stratified organizations operated by powerful but opaque ruling cliques, regimes that have brooked no opposition to their official diktat from the centre.
The two leaders command the attention of over a third of the population of the planet – 1.2 billion Catholics and 1.4 billion Chinese with little overlap. Both leaders have now been in place long enough for assessments to be made of their contrasting approaches to leadership.
On November 15 the Chinese leader will mark two years since he took control of China’s ruling Communist Party and, crucially, of its armed forces. The presidency was simply a titular addition to the party chief position. And November 13 marks the 20th month since Jorge Mario Bergoglio became bishop of Rome, the title he prefers.
There are similarities between the two men. Both are popular with their people. Both want to clean up the institutions that administer their domains. Both arrived at their posts with a reform agenda supported by those who elected them. Both have little patience with self-promoters and those looking for titles and recognition.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Francis is an outsider – the first non-European pontiff in 1,300 years and the first to be drawn from the Jesuit order, some of whose members have been at odds with the papacy in recent decades.
Xi, on the other hand, is part of the Party aristocracy widely known as the “princelings”, descendants of the most senior of the original party revolutionaries. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun was a famous general and later a key player in Deng Xiaopings’s original program of reform in the 1980s.
These two reformers, Francis and Xi, intent on reviving two powerful institutions that have become sclerotic in recent decades, differ most on how they approach the challenge of leadership and manage their own positions as leaders. They are both opposed by powerful groups of conservatives, but they are taking diametrically opposed approaches to dealing with them.
In contrast to his predecessors over the last 35 years and Xi now, Pope Francis has refrained from issuing or authorizing the Roman curia to issue many official documents. John Paul II issued 14 encyclicals, presided over an apparently never-ending stream of declarations by the Vatican’s departments managing theology, morality, liturgy, education, ministry, Mary and many more topics in the Church.
A good many of the moral, liturgical and doctrinal documents were authored or overseen by his main doctrinal lieutenant, Joseph Ratzinger, who succeeded him as Pope Benedict XVI. In just under eight years in the top job, Ratzinger kept up the pace, publishing 37 books, three encyclicals and three apostolic exhortations or papal declarations of lesser significance than an encyclical. In his first two years alone, Pope Benedict published 13 books of which only four were republished earlier works.
Under Xi, the Party’s leadership has produced detailed documents on economic, and lately legal, reforms in China. These have been the outcome of two plenums (annual summits of the Party), the most recent of which concluded October 23. Written in the dense, opaque style of Party decisions, these programs are aimed at further centralizing power in Beijing.
However, the corruption blighting the Party and threatening its destruction is most visible to ordinary Chinese people at the local level. This is particularly true of the nexus between the security apparatus and the courts, something Xi’s adjustments to China’s flawed legal system are meant to break.
The solution Xi and his followers propose is a centrally authorized and administered but locally operated legal system that still has to take account of the all-important role of the Party. The conflict of interest inherent in a system with no separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive is likely to be the undoing of the reforms.
In his first 18 months, Pope Francis has produced only a single publication, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, his broad-brush program for the Church’s renewal. But what is more significant is his consultative style of leadership, one integral to the Jesuit mode of governance.
This approach was vividly displayed at the recent Synod for the Family. Critics of the pope accused him of licensing anarchy. He, on the other hand, asserted that no lasting solutions can be found until all suggestions and proposals have been considered.
The contrast between the approaches is that between centralization, fostered by Xi since his rapid emergence as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, versus Francis’ decentralization. It is a contrast between an ultra-proscriptive approach and inclusive attentiveness.
While Xi issues directives, Francis keeps saying that a great deal of the Church’s life from the administration of marriage laws to matters such as celibacy and the nature of ministry in the Church should be delegated to local consideration.
In using the phone to contact people directly and in talks to journalists, Francis has resurrected a personalized tradition of governance that pre-dates the last two centuries.
In contrast, Xi employs some of the techniques of Western politicians, popping up in local noodle bars and taxis as part of a propaganda campaign to cast him as “a man of the people”. His anti-corruption campaign is popular and he has heightened the rhetoric of Chinese nationalism, especially against Japan. Yet he has also reached back to what many fear is a sort of personality cult not seen since the days of Mao Zedong.
Within the Party he is ruthlessly pursuing and crushing his enemies, a campaign initially focused on the vast power base of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, the highest ranking official since the days of Mao to come under official “investigation”.
Xi has also instigated a program of crushing intellectual and artistic dissent, arresting activists, rights lawyers, religious freedom advocates, academics and artists – as well as chasing others out of the country.
Francis plays a more subtle game, breaking open the circle of discussion with off-the-cuff remarks in sermons, addresses and other occasions in a way that can be described as similar to that of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong who, in the 1950s, claimed to want to let “100 flowers bloom”.
Mao did that so he could flush out his opponents and neutralize them with jail terms or worse. Not so the bishop of Rome.
Letting the flowers bloom is what the recent Extraordinary Synod aimed to do – create open debate. And that it did, with the conversation now being internationalized over the year as all the Church’s members are asked to participate in a discussion of how to resolve outstanding issues of doctrine and pastoral practice such as marriage and divorce.
Francis’ inclusive and consultative approach to leadership has provoked alarm and hostility from those more comfortable with a command and control approach not unlike what Xi is attempting in Beijing. One of the Vatican’s most notorious conservatives, Cardinal Raymond Burke, told a Spanish publication on October 31 that the Church was “rudderless” under Pope Francis. http://ncronline.org/news/vatican/burke-church-under-francis-ship-without-rudder.
The Church is not without a rudder. Instead, there are just more voices being heard than usually get invited to join the conversation.
Authoritarians, whether in China or the Church, don’t like hearing the voice of the people. But some leaders do. Pope Francis is one of them because he believes it is among the people that the voice of the Holy Spirit can be heard.
For all his talk of reform, for Xi Jingpin the only voices to get a hearing are those committed to the Party’s current line with little room for input from the people.
It remains to be seen which program will be more successful in the long run, but we are betting on Francis.
Michael Kelly is the Publisher of www.globalpulsemagazine. com and Michael Sainsbury is a freelance writer in Bangkok and a regular contributor to the online magazine which now welcomes subscriptions.