Xi Jinping and Jorge Mario Bergoglio would seem like natural enemies. The Chinese president runs a government that is often criticised for its human rights record.
Bergoglio – better known as Pope Francis – wants access to Xi’s citizens to spread the Catholic Church’s teachings, challenge the Communist Party’s hold on dogma and reach out to North Korea.
Yet these world leaders should be sharing notes. The tasks facing the two men who took office one day apart in 2013 are similar – and not because both lead flocks of more than 1 billion people each, notes Stephan Richter, the publisher of online magazine The Globalist.
“This is only where the stunning parallels start,” he writes. “China’s Communist Party and the Catholic Church share more than certain organisational characteristics, including being heavily male-dominated power structures.
“In addition, they both offer up ideologies or faith systems with an absolutist claim. That isn’t an easy proposition in an era when fewer and fewer people are inclined to adhere to rigid propositions.”
When you look at the daunting challenges facing both men, you have to wonder if this is a matter of what Richter calls “two shepherds, two cultural revolutions”.
Both have lots of housekeeping to do to shake up rigid bureaucracies that traffic more in ethical failures and corruption than their predecessors wanted to admit. Both are redoubling efforts to reduce poverty. Both face powerful and shadowy resistance to pledged reforms.
The Communist Party and the Vatican suffer from disillusionment and loss of legitimacy among the masses. And, despite the best intentions, it’s unclear if either man will succeed.
Pope Francis has made headlines for saying and doing previously unthinkable things, purging and investigating church leaders who were once thought untouchable. His call for bishops around the globe to poll Catholics about the appeal of church teachings is a revolutionary step.
Xi, too, seems to be trying to purge the system. He spent the first 12 months in office solidifying his power base. As year two begins, though, the gloves may be coming off.
The investigation into former security chief Zhou Yongkang, his family and cronies – which has netted about $14.5 billion (R152bn) in illegitimate assets – may be the biggest corruption probe in modern history. Xu Caihou, a former vice-chairman of the military commission, is also being investigated for corruption.
These moves suggest Xi’s anti-graft campaign could go deeper than officialdom anticipated. It’s early, and Xi could just be looking for some easy targets to buttress his good governance bona fides.
But it’s hard to exaggerate the chilling effect this is having in Beijing. Should the purges continue, Xi would have a freer hand to turn his big rhetoric of changing China’s growth model into reality.
Just as a kind of mafia inside the Vatican’s Roman Curia bureaucracy has much to lose from Pope Francis’s shake-up, the many millionaires and billionaires China Inc has created face uncomfortable scrutiny. Xi knows that he will have to stamp out the land grabs, illicit trading, insider trading and rent seeking that have tarnished Beijing’s image if he is to promote real change.
Xi seems to understand that, like the pope, he needs to develop a better sense of his flock’s grievances and concerns. Along with his roles as president, military chief and party general secretary, he has added internet czar. While aimed mainly at silencing dissent, the move is also about gauging public opinion. Sinister as it is, obsessive monitoring of chat rooms and microblogging sites gives Xi a window into his subjects’ thinking.
The big question is how far these men will go to make opaque and top-down organisations more transparent.
“Bringing more openness is a risky manoeuvre, not just because it will raise the ire of many insiders,” Richter says. “It can easily turn into the proverbial Pandora’s box.”
Even so, it’s heartening to see Xi beginning to address the official corruption eating away at China’s political soul. And if he ever needs a comrade to chew things over with, he may find one in the most unexpected of places.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @williampesek.