China's Xi Can't Compete With `Rock Star' Pope in U.S. Trip

Pope Francis at the Intersection of Faith, Politics
  • Pope addresses Congress as Xi arrives for first state visit
  • China is a potential growth market for Roman Catholic Church

Xi Jinping may govern one-fifth of humanity, yet when the Chinese President arrives in Washington he risks being upstaged by the leader of another billion-strong flock: Pope Francis.

Hours before Xi’s plane touches down Thursday, Francis will become the first pontiff to address a joint session of Congress. As he prepares for a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday, the head of the world’s smallest state will address the United Nations. That evening, as Xi dons his formal wear for a White House state dinner, Francis will play Madison Square Garden with a prime-time Mass for thousands in Manhattan.

“There’s no question Francis will be the star of the show when he’s in town,” John L. Allen, author, of “Against the Tide: The Radical Leadership of Pope Francis,” said in an interview. “Anyone else will be on the B-list. Princess Diana, maybe, could have rivaled him when she was alive. It’s a short list and Xi is not on it.”

Dubbed the "rock star" pope for the electrifying effect his 30-month pontificate has had on the world, Francis is a tough act to follow, though Shakira will give it a go with a 10-minute concert after his UN speech. Xi, 62, has the misfortune of trailing the spry 78-year-old Argentine by a day when he arrives to the U.S. capital and then follows him up to New York. Xi is following so closely on the Pope’s heels that the White House invited press covering the pontiff’s departure from Joint Base Andrews to stick around for Xi’s arrival.

No Overlap

With the Communist Party’s chokehold on Catholicism in China and the Vatican’s support for Taiwan straining relations, it’s no surprise the two leaders won’t overlap -- the pope’s plane departs New York hours before Xi touches down. Divisions aside, China is seen as a potential growth market for the Church at a time of stagnation in the faith in Western Europe, and Francis has made improving ties a priority of his papacy.

Under Xi, China has also signaled a willingness to engage, allowing the Pope’s plane to fly over Chinese airspace when Francis was traveling to South Korea in August 2014, a courtesy denied Pope John Paul II on his Asian trips. Pope Francis sent Xi a personal message from the plane extending his “best wishes to Your Excellency and your fellow citizens.”

One may be a humble Jesuit and the other a godless communist, but there are similarities between the two leaders.

Day Apart

They came to power within a day of each other, with Xi taking over as Chinese president on March 14, 2013 a day after the familiar cry of “Habemus Papam” introduced a little-known cardinal named Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square as the first pope to hail from Latin America.

Upon taking power, the two embarked on campaigns to weed out corruption in the respective institutions and both regularly criticize the excesses of Western capitalism and the blind pursuit of material wealth.

Xi and Francis will need to find more common ground to end over a half a century of mistrust and suspicion. The Chinese government broke off diplomatic relations with the Vatican after coming to power in 1949 and the two sides remain divided over the level of influence that the Vatican can exert over the country’s estimated 12 million Catholics.

The officially atheist Communist Party insists only its surrogates can name the bishops that guide the flock and that their loyalty must be to the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, not the pope.

Religious Freedom?

Despite the 1982 constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, Xi’s government has cracked down on Christianity in Zhejiang province, home to a growing number of underground churches that are viewed as a potential threat to one-party rule. Much of the campaign, which involved tearing down crosses and destroying some churches, was largely directed at Protestant denominations, though the clampdown rattled the country’s Catholics, who participated in protests against the actions.

“The most controversial question to be resolved relates to the nomination of bishops, but there are also other issues to be resolved including the fundamental issue as to the level of religious freedom that the Church leadership can have in mainland China,” said Gerard O’Connell, associate editor and Vatican bureau chief for America magazine.

Since both leaders came to power, there are signs that back-channel talks may be yielding results. Last month, China ordained its first bishop in three years with the backing of the Vatican. Father Joseph Zhang Yinlin, 44, was anointed bishop of the Anyang diocese in Henan Province on Aug. 4. About 100 priests were on hand for the ordination, with only Vatican-approved bishops attending the event.

House Arrest

Three years ago, the 2012 ordination of Thaddeus Ma Daqin as an auxiliary bishop in Shanghai reaped a radically different outcome. Ma denounced the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association at the ceremony and has been under house arrest since, Vatican Radio reported.

"We can see the improvement and development of the relations over the past year," said Wang Yiwei, professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. "The Pope has been sending goodwill gestures to China and China’s ambassador to Italy has close communication with the Vatican.”

Taiwan remains a stubborn obstacle to a restoration of ties.

The Vatican is one of fewer than two dozens sovereigns that maintain full-diplomatic relations with the mainland’s civil war foe. Francis would need to drop the island, which China considers a breakaway province since the 1949 split, to secure renewed ties with the world’s second-biggest economy. Xi, too, stands to gain from a closer relationship with the Holy See, the central government of Catholic Church.

It "remains the only European state that still keeps diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it feels like a big missing piece for Beijing," said Kung Lap Yan, an associate professor at the Divinity School of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "So if they can establish formal ties, it can boost China’s international status and reputation."

21-Gun Salute

In his first full day in Washington on Wednesday, Francis arrived at the White House in an unassuming -- but environment-friendly -- Fiat 500L for a meeting with Obama and a welcoming ceremony including military bands, lines of soldiers standing at attention and a review of the Army’s colonial-era fife and drum corps. After leaving the White House, he rode in a specially modified Jeep Wrangler for a parade in downtown Washington past tens of thousands of cheering onlookers. At several points, he paused his motorcade to kiss children brought to him by his security detail.

While Xi isn’t getting a parade, he did trump the pope in one area of protocol. The Chinese president will receive a 21-gun salute before his meeting with Obama. In the pope’s case, the White House abstained from the traditional salute for state visits by foreign leaders. Obama’s press secretary, Josh Earnest, told reporters later that the “repeated firing of weapons” wasn’t appropriate for a ceremony welcoming a “professed man of peace.”

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