In the next few historic days, the two men who are arguably the world’s two most powerful leaders are visiting the U.S. at the same time. At least they are the two leaders with the most followers. Xi Jinping, leader of 1.5 billion Chinese, and Pope Francis, leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, arrived on opposite coasts yesterday, and the opportunity to compare them is irresistible.
|Produced by Ryan Derousseau|
The stylistic differences are most immediately obvious, and they’re striking. “Pope starts U.S. trip with modesty, tone of conciliation” is how Reuters headlined its story. The same could not be said of Xi, though he tries to project modesty. But he has been intent on conveying power and even intimidation lately, recently staging a high-visibility military parade in Beijing and then starting his U.S. trip in Seattle, not Washington, a move seen in diplomatic circles as a snub to President Obama. Xi got off his plane and into a big SUV for the drive into town. Francis got off his plane and into a Fiat 500L, which looks a lot like an SUV shrunk by half.
On matters of substance, Xi and Francis actually share a couple of concerns. Both are intent on rooting out corruption, and both are finding that it isn’t easy. Only one of them, however, has corrupt leaders shot. Both are opposed to lavish living. Xi has almost single-handedly stopped the galloping growth of the luxury goods business in China by making clear that extravagant dinners and celebrations, including expensive “gifts,” are no longer tolerated (it’s part of the anti-corruption drive). Francis’s criticism of lavish living is part of a larger critique of capitalist culture, or so it seems to many observers. On his flight from Cuba to the U.S., however, he told reporters that he wasn’t opposed to capitalism and that “the impression that I am a bit to the left … would be an error of explanation.”
It’s intriguing to consider that neither leader was elected by his followers. But then the nature of their institutions, and the reasons people follow each leader, are so starkly different that maybe it’s best not to carry these comparisons too far. It’s perfectly legitimate, though, to compare them on one more dimension. Francis’s approval rating among the U.S. public is 60%. Xi’s is 28%
During the rest of the week it will be instructive to read the news coverage of Francis and Xi in the U.S. not as two separate stories, but as one story about two kinds of leader.
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