Chinese leader Xi Jinping, in scheduling his U.S. visit, seems to have fallen into a trap common for many communist leaders: underestimating papal power. Xi will be following in the footsteps of Pope Francis on visits first to the White House in Washington, and then to the United Nations in New York. The Roman pontiff, dubbed a “rock star” by some commentators, is already grabbing the limelight in a media frenzy during his visit. The first official state visit of the new Chinese president, meanwhile, which roughly coincides with the first American visit of this widely popular pope, promises to be largely overshadowed as a result. Xi is very likely to come and go with very few Americans even being aware that he was here at all.
Xi, who landed in Seattle Tuesday, will arrive in Washington on Thursday, just as Pope Francis will be heading to New York after making history as the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. The next morning, as Xi prepares to arrive on the South Lawn of the White House for a 21-gun salute, most television cameras will be focused again on Pope Francis delivering remarks to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. And when Xi approaches that same U.N. podium in New York on the following Monday, he will again be in the shadow of Pope Francis, who will have already come and gone.
One must wonder who in protocol in Beijing planned such a schedule. It guarantees that the big boss will be continuously outshone by a near-octogenarian in white flowing robes with only a cross to match the tanks, missiles, and fighter planes that Xi so recently displayed in his WWII victory parade in Tiananmen Square.
Communists quite often underestimate the popular appeal of religion. Stalin was the first communist leader to be dismissive of papal influence. His interpreter, Valentin Berezhkov, recorded in his memoirs a 1944 meeting between the Soviet dictator and Winston Churchill. The British prime minister was reportedly urging Stalin to show some restraint in post-war Poland, a Catholic country for which Britain had gone to war against the Nazis. Stalin’s reported curt reply was “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?’ The pope at the time, Pius XII, reportedly responded to Stalin’s derisive comment with his own quip: “You can tell my son Joseph that he will meet my divisions in heaven.
The Polish communists fared little better in their under-estimation of John Paul II. Jane Barnes and Helen Whitney, PBS Frontline writers of “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,” reported on a meeting they had with General Jaruzelski, former head of the Polish Communist Party and the man who imposed martial law on Poland, following labor unrest in 1981. “Jaruzelski reportedly ‘laughed ruefully and shook his head’ during a long, revealing afternoon we spent talking with him. He admitted that one of the great ironies of the regime he served was how much they had underestimated Wojtyla (John Paul II). ‘My Communist colleagues decided that the bishops ahead of Karol Wojtyla on the list of candidates were not good for the state, so they pushed Karol Wojtyla. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.’” Jaruzelski concluded by observing that John Paul II’s return visit to his native Poland as pope in 1979 was “the detonator” for the subsequent fall of communism in that country.
While the two world leaders may both be briefly in New York at the same time, their paths are not likely to cross, especially since the Papal Nuncio for the Vatican still resides in Taiwan, “a renegade province” according to orthodox communist mainland Chinese. Still, Xi Jinping may well return to Beijing mimicking the famous words of JFK when he followed his “rock star” wife Jackie around Paris: “I am the man who accompanied Pope Francis to America.”
Dennis P. Halpin, a former adviser to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is a visiting scholar at the US-Korea Institute and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.