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Foreign Policy

Catholicism Trumps Communism

Oct 14 , 2015

The news coverage of two world leaders visiting America a few weeks ago could not have been more starkly different.

One religious leader’s every move – literally from sun up to sun down – was captured on national news outlets, crowding out all other media messages that might have also covered Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official “state” visit to the U.S.

Pastor to an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, at age 76, Pope Francis, a Harley-riding Cardinal, became the 266th Bishop of Rome. I have never been prouder of having been raised Catholic than when Pope Francis was elected by his peers to be leader of the Catholic Church.

Even as the Catholic Church lost its moorings in past decades, spending more time on social moralizing, neglecting the teachings of Jesus about caring for the poor and the “least among us,” Pope Francis shows that he “gets it.” He is a true champion of the poor and a force for positive change in the world.

While in the U.S., Pope Francis not only met with President Obama, addressed the U.S. Congress but also broke bread with prisoners and the homeless. A humble person, he spoke of lifting up the poor, disabled and discarded. This pope may not walk on water, but he clearly “walks the talk” that the nuns of my youth tried to literally beat into me.

President Xi—Default or Design?

China’s President Xi Jinping also visited the United States last week. The highlight of his visit was a high-stakes, scripted, state dinner with President Obama at the White House along with a twenty-one-gun salute. The lavish dinner was attended by a who’s-who of luminaries from Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Disney, DreamWorks to former Secretaries of State Madelyn Albright and Henry Kissinger.

As a China watcher with China on “Google alert” I was dismayed by the lack of coverage generated by the U.S. media for President Xi – a lost opportunity that may have helped educate Americans about our most important global relationship.

The Chinese President was given all the diplomatic fanfare normally given an international leader. President Xi’s and President Obama’s actions, worthy of significant press coverage, were drowned out by all things Pope Francis. Was the juxtaposition of Pope Francis and President Xi overlapping time in America by default or design?

The Asia Times made note of the contrast between coverage of Pope Francis and President Xi saying, “For most Americans, it was a sideshow: the main news networks were deep into their fourth straight day of blanket coverage of Pope Francis’ historic U.S. visit. Xi’s U.S. trip was – at least in terms of U.S. media coverage – firmly overshadowed by the wildly popular pontiff, raising questions over its’ timing and contrasting sharply with the wall-to-wall coverage of Xi by Chinese media.”

According to data provided by MediaMiser, which tracks news and media content online, on television and via radio, talk of the Pope dwarfed any attention given Xi’s visit. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 25, tweets in the United States about Pope Francis topped 765,000, compared to 107,000 for Xi. Online articles from Sept. 20-24 mentioned the pope nearly four times more than Xi. On television, the pope was mentioned over 25 times more.

Don’t expect any official public complaint from the Chinese Government and Chinese media (one and the same) because they don’t want the Chinese people to see this visit as a “slight” or a continuation of the leftover feelings from their “Century of Humiliation.”

Reuters News Service reported that China’s tightly controlled state media has focused heavily on the pomp, ceremony and shows of respect Xi has been treated to in Seattle and then Washington, D.C. The adoring domestic coverage is important for Xi, who is grappling with Chinese market instability and a flagging economy at a time when he is seeking to consolidate his grip on leadership ahead of a crucial Communist Party congress in 2017.

Clearly there were issues that could have generated friction while Xi was in town – cybersecurity and espionage, tension in the South China Sea, the dropping value of the yuan, economic insecurity and the U.S’s pivot to Asia. Yet, Obama’s and Xi’s managed diplomatic expectations and kept the talks focused on a foundation of mutual respect, seeking win-win strategies that enhance world peace and economic growth.

There were major announcements singularly by Xi and jointly with Obama. A White House statement says the two heads of state exchanged views on a range of global, regional, and bilateral subjects. President Obama and President Xi “agreed to work together to constructively manage our differences and decided to expand and deepen cooperation” in such areas as Afghanistan, peacekeeping, nuclear security, wildlife trafficking and ocean conservation.

Meet the New Boss—Same as the Old Boss?

Xi Jinping has grabbed the reins of power in China and pulled them tighter than most before him, equaling Deng Xiaoping, and perhaps even Mao.

He has set the stage for what is acceptable behavior by top Chinese officials. The President is extremely comfortable in his own skin and is demanding Chinese Party leaders conduct the People’s business in a more down-to-earth way. He has gone after both “fleas and tigers” (small and major) corrupt officials. Xi is acting on an ancient Chinese writing, saying as he implements the tough new anti-corruption measures and conspicuous consumption by top officials: “Kill the chickens to scare the monkeys.”

It is inevitable that China, as an emerging economic and military power, will cause friction and fear in America about a relationship that rearranges the chessboard of world politics. As the tectonic plates of world power shift, there are likely to be eruptions.

The fear and distrust is equal on both sides of the ocean about the true intentions of our respective countries. Many argue that the many strategic and economic interests between our two nations are too important to completely unravel.

Missed Opportunity

Having watched China for decades as President Xi climbed the Chinese political ladder, I suggest the relationship between the U.S. and China is one that constantly and continuously places our two countries at the proverbial crossroads: How this relationship is managed will impact our respective people — and all of humanity.

China and President Xi are important to America but given the lack of attention given them in the press last week, this importance went unnoticed by the American people.

It was as if a marginal relative arrived in town at the same time the family’s prodigal son returned: One’s presence was highlighted while the other was downplayed.

To be clear, President Xi is not Pope Francis and The People’s Republic of China is not the Roman Catholic Vatican, but China and President Xi are deserving of a much better media reception than just the diplomatic dinner with mentions of the First Lady’s dresses.

The American media and the White House missed an opportunity to present President Xi and China to the American people in ways that would have allowed them to form better views about this most important global relationship.

Ultimately, I believe this will be seen as a long term strategic mistake.

China and the U.S. each hold up half the sky

We can hope the pope is praying our respective leaders continue to work together to sustain a peaceful and uplifting existence for us all.

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