The Pope and Xi in Washington

Francesco Sisci September 11, 2015 8:48 AM (UTC+8)
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Beijing may not have wished it and might not have fully taken it into consideration, but Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to the US in late September will be overshadowed by another trip — by Pope Francis, Giorgio Bergoglio. While he is not the first pontiff to visit the US, his visit will be the first of its kind in many ways.

Xi Jinping, Pope Francis
Xi Jinping, Pope Francis

This pope will be the first Catholic leader to address a joint session of the US Congress on Sept. 24. After this unprecedented honor (Protestant-dominated America long being suspicious of the overreaching influence of the pontiff in Rome) he will shun a banquet with the grandees of the country and be whisked away to a modest lunch with the poor and mentally ill of Washington.

The American media is dazzled by this gesture, which strikes a deep chord in the soul of the nation. America was born of pilgrims — religious radicals opposed to the ossified and jaded Roman Catholics — who fled their homes and all they had to keep their faith. To their heirs, this pope seems to say that through him they can rediscover their Christian origin.

This might go beyond the political rift that’s been polarizing Americans apart since the election of President Bill Clinton and the end of Cold War.

The Pope can speak to conservatives, who respected his predecessors Wojtyla (for his role opposing the USSR) and Ratzinger (for his stress of church principles). But Pope Francis also speaks to liberals, enthralled by his concern for poverty, equality, mercy, and freedom for all.

In other words, the principled missionary spirit, so much a part of the American identity both Right and Left, is shown to be the quintessence of this pope and possibly of future papacies. Then this pope, with his humanity, could help America regain its unity, beyond the extreme partisan politics.

This goes beyond power politics, which the American press already senses, as most media are ignoring the Pope’s stop in Cuba prior to arriving in New York. In a different time and with a different person, this might have been perceived as an affront.

In contrast, China — with its goose-stepping military parades, cryptic politics, and arcane social and business rules — fails to speak to American souls. Meanwhile, its growing economic force, martial posture, and expanding cyber might rattle nerves in the US, where many people have not yet re-adjusted to fall of the USSR and are uneasy with a rapidly changing world.

Xi, at this time, is pushing an anti-corruption campaign. On the surface, this may look good to America, but what does it all mean? What changes does it bring to the common people of China, the Americans, or the rest of the world?

“The trip (by Xi to the US) will show China’s perseverance in solving controversial issues and stabilizing relations, rather than putting the issues aside just because Obama will leave office in 2016,” Jin Canrong, a professor and Associate Dean with the School of International Studies at at Renmin University, reportedly said.

Regardless of what China is trying to achieve with Xi’s visit to Washington, the contrast with American media perceptions of the Pope’s visit is stark. The US press is forgetting the controversy over child molestation by Catholic priests. Instead, it is hails the pontiff’s revolution of making holy matrimony easier, faster, and cheaper to annul, thus removing it from the preserve of rich and hypocritical bigots. Those rich, hypocritical bigots were the archetypal enemies the old pilgrims and settlers fled.

The list of contrasts could go on, and in the hands of clever scribblers (unlike this poor one) the upcoming visits could soon become a tale of two leaders: One religious, one political; one dressed in white, one in blue; one without one military division, one with an aggressive army.

This could overshadow perhaps other elements: both of these leaders are overweight (food may be their way to manage stress); both are battling internal sleaze while trying to hold their organizations together; both are trying to renew their organizations, and both are traveling to Washington seeking different or similar — God knows — dreams.

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Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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