It is no coincidence that Washington is hosting the representatives of two world powers at the same time.
Next week, Pope Francis will come to the United State for the first time. At the same time, China’s President Xi Jinping will be traveling through the country, a representative of 1.4 billion Chinese people.
The meeting with Mr. Xi will be stressful for President Barack Obama because the Chinese leader is a rival with whom one “can talk constructively in the areas in which one has differing viewpoints.”
So the pope’s travel plans came at just the right time. Washington is now allowing Mr. Xi’s visit to be overshadowed to a certain extent by the pope’s tour – and not without some pleasure.
Next Thursday, Pope Francis will become the first pope to address the U.S. Congress. During his speech, Mr. Xi will still be traveling to the country. His state dinner is not until Friday.
The Vatican is the only state in Europe without diplomatic ties to China. Beijing persecutes bishops and locks them up.
But just a few hours prior to that, the head of the Catholic Church will speak before the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Mr. Xi, however, is only scheduled to go to the United Nations on Monday.
It is clear, in any case, how the U.S. television channels will allocate their air time next week. Emotion trumps reason. It’s a bitter bill for Beijing. Then there’s the fact that Mr. Xi is traveling in the shadow of a pope. The Vatican is the only state in Europe without diplomatic ties to China and Beijing persecutes bishops and locks them up. The Chinese do not like the fact that Catholics in China appoint bishops without the approval of Beijing.
Pope Francis has approached China cautiously. It would be sensational if he and Mr. Xi were to meet each other “by chance” in Washington. That would be good for China and the Vatican, and a political coup for Mr. Obama. But the differences are still too great.
Almost worse for Mr. Xi will be overcoming traits that have afflicted all top Beijing leaders since Deng Xiaoping, namely a lack of charisma and spontaneity and a relaxed sense of cosmopolitan decorum.
While playing the folksy down-to-Earth politician may be well-received in some countries, the audience back home would be irritated if their president wore jeans and went to get a burger with Mr. Obama. And some hardliners in the leadership would be too.
Pope Francis has the same problem with his conservative flock, but has nevertheless broken through the stuffiness that has previously gone hand-in-hand with the role.
Francis has been able to temporarily push the Catholic church’s problems – its dictatorship, the handling of women, the ostentatious splendor and above all the sexual abuse of children – into the background in favor of brotherly love, community, humor and humility.
But political appearance is at least as important today as political power and negotiation. As they used to say in the 1960s British TV series The Avengers: “With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat.” Xi needs more charm and less bowler hat. An umbrella, on the other hand, can’t hurt in America.
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