The People’s Pope and the Chairman of Everything

By Jeffrey WasserstromApril 28, 2015

The People’s Pope and the Chairman of Everything

Note: this piece was written for simultaneous bilingual publication in English, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and in Italian, in Cinaforum, available here.

All photographs courtesy of Jeffrey Wasserstrom. All rights reserved.


IN A COMMENTARY that ran on The Atlantic’s website two years ago, I mused — as others such as Financial Times journalist Richard McGregor had before me — on how much the Catholic Church and the Chinese Communist Party have in common, their obvious doctrinal differences notwithstanding. I was inspired to write the piece by a weeklong trip to Asia, which took place in March 2013 while news was breaking simultaneously on opposite sides of the world of Xi Jinping’s expected move from vice president to President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and of Pope Francis’s surprising selection as the new head of the Catholic Church. Two developments have motivated me to revisit that theme now: 1) the editors of the South China Morning Post recently made the curious decision to dub Xi and Francis joint winners of its inaugural “Leader of the Year” award (they used this as an excuse to run a laudatory New Year’s Day account of these two alleged proponents of bold “reform agendas” — a move that drew laudatory online comments from some readers but derisive ones from others, with one mocking the choice for being as ludicrous as Beijing’s decision to give its Nobel wannabe Confucius Peace Prize to Vladimir Putin in 2011); and 2) another weeklong trip abroad, this time to Rome, gave me a new perspective on the issue.

The thrust of my earlier commentary from 2013 was simple: when I watched news broadcasts in my Shanghai, China, hotel room in a fuzzy jetlagged state that March, I was struck by “how hard it could be to figure out at first, when I toggled between networks or woke up from a catnap, whether a newscaster was talking about Beijing or about Rome.” There was discussion in each case of a secretive selection process being used to decide who would lead a community of roughly 1.2 billion people and head a bureaucracy with a major corruption problem. There was debate over whether or not the new man would prove more of a “reformer” than his retiring predecessor — Hu Jintao in China’s case, and Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican’s — and also whether the former leader stepping aside would fade away or continue to wield influence. I concluded by noting that some of Xi’s early actions as president paralleled closely those Francis had taken as Pope. For example, both men were making gestures designed to show their commitment to simplicity and frugality. (There were differences, including the fact that Xi traveled with his wife, the stylish Peng Liyuan, who was acting like a typical “First Lady.”)

Today, another obvious parallel compels me to revisit this comparison of the two leaders: the way in which the party and the church venerate their respective leaders. Xi became general secretary of the party several months before ascending to the presidency. He has gone on since to accumulate so many additional titles — rather than just sticking to those two main posts and head of a military commission, as Hu and Jiang Zemin before him had done — that the witty Australian sinologist Geremie Barmé has suggested a new title for him: “Chairman of Everything.” Along with more titles, he has more of a personality cult than Hu and Jiang had, and indeed even Deng Xiaoping, the strongest and most revered leader since Mao Zedong. One of Xi’s catchphrases, “The Chinese Dream,” is featured on countless street posters, and his face now shows up in many places, including bookstores, where it is common to see stacks of tomes by and about him.

When I arrived in Rome early in April this year, I couldn’t help but recall my last trip to China in late January. In China, the reminders and images of the Chairman of Everything were everywhere. In Rome, the likenesses of the current Pope were just as ubiquitous — and not just when I visited Vatican City late in the week. At souvenir carts and in shop windows near tourist areas linked to ancient Rome, Francis’s face appeared on refrigerator magnets, calendar covers, even atop bobble head dolls. In photographs, he is shown giving a thumbs-up sign to the viewer, reinforcing the notion that “Papa Francesco” is an informal man of the people. This imagery of a religious leader sometimes called “The People’s Pope” matches some of the portrayals of his Chinese counterpart, a man often referred to now as “Xi Dada” (Big Papa Xi).

A close look at displays of papal-themed mementos brought to light a shared trait of the two organizations that I hadn’t considered before: former heads of each are not venerated equally. Every Pope may be considered infallible in his day, but just as you see more images of Mao and Deng than of Hu and Jiang in Xi’s China, you see many more trinkets emblazoned with the faces of some of Francis’s precursors than you do of Benedict XVI. This fits with the fact that only some former Popes are made saints, and two of Francis’s predecessors, John Paul II and John XXIII, made the grade. There is also, as I learned when touring Vatican City, a spillover relating to burial. While the standard practice is to bury Popes beneath St. Peter’s Basilica, there is a second burial, linked to beatification, in which the bodies of especially sacred Popes are interred above ground in a special section of that massive church.

The Communist Party, being an atheist organization, doesn’t have official “saints,” of course, but does have counterparts to beatification. There are famous “revolutionary martyrs,” for example, who inspire hagiographic treatments in print and other media and, like saints, have statues and monuments made in their honor. There are also some past Chinese leaders who get elevated in ways that bring to mind Popes who become “saints” or, in very rare cases, rise even higher posthumously and have the honorific “great” added to their names. Deng, despite some misguided actions, has been celebrated posthumously in ways that bring to mind a Pope who became a saint, with his celebrated role in laying the groundwork for China’s economic boom the equivalent to the “miracle” needed for beatification. Mao, despite the horrific results of some of his policies, would be the obvious candidate for the party’s equivalent to being considered a “great” saint. This is due to the role the chairman, also known as “The Great Helmsman,” played in the miraculous Long March and the founding of the PRC.

It is worth noting that only Mao’s body, not Deng’s, lies in a mausoleum that serves as a pilgrimage site in the heart of Tiananmen Square, not far from the Monument to the People’s Heroes — an obelisk surrounded by marble friezes that, collectively, pays homage to the revolutionary martyrs who helped him accomplish his miracles. Criticism of Deng is often kept in check; one reason for the taboo on publicly discussing 1989’s June Fourth massacre is that doing so reflects badly on him. Still, this is nothing compared to the way that, at various times, speaking or writing about Mao in certain ways is deemed blasphemous. I witnessed fresh evidence that we are living in such a time while I was in Rome, due partly to Xi’s ramping up of Mao’s exaltation: a story broke that a television host was under scrutiny for dissing the Great Helmsman at a banquet in a way that, as Chris Buckley of The New York Times noted, may be common enough in private but is verboten in any public setting.

Touring Vatican City, I saw many specific things that brought parallels to mind of the allegedly secular but actually sacred sites of central Beijing. For example, St. Peter’s Square and Tiananmen Square are both near museums. Both are vast plazas where crowds sometimes gather at ritually important moments — Easter in one case, for example, and National Day in the other. More specifically, the statues of saints that are arrayed above St. Peter’s Square and seem to be looking down on an obelisk in the center of it seem in some ways deconstructed counterparts to Tiananmen’s Monument to the People’s Heroes. The main difference is simply that in the case of the Beijing monolith, the images of the saints are etched in marble on its side rather than physically separated from it.

Perhaps the single object that made the deepest impression on me, though, was The School of Athens, a famous work by Raphael that is one of the Vatican Museums’ great treasures. In this well known painting, which visitors see just before entering the Sistine Chapel, Raphael celebrates the accomplishments of great thinkers from the past, including the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, all of whom lived centuries before the birth of Christ.

To explain why this painting made such an impression on me, I need to note that two days before seeing it, I had been thinking about the relationship between China’s Communist Party and Confucius, who lived about a century before Socrates. The Chinese sage had been on my mind because of a presentation I had given on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement at Rome’s La Sapienza University, hosted by the school’s Oriental Studies department. La Sapienza happens to be home to what is now the longest established Confucius Institute (CI) in Europe — a title it claimed recently after the closing of the very first CI set up on the continent, which had been in Stockholm, Sweden. Arriving early for my talk, I strolled around the Oriental Studies Institute’s courtyard and saw a large statue of Confucius — the sort you often come across in foreign locales where there are CIs, and also sometimes find now in China in various places, including on campuses, near public libraries, and for a time, though it only stood there for a short period, in Tiananmen Square itself. Seeing that statue, I decided to begin my talk with a digression on my latest book, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, which begins with an examination of Confucius’s beliefs. After explaining those, I move on to ask whether he has always been revered in China. He hasn’t; Mao, in fact — the most famous and infamous leader of the same Communist Party that now proudly funds Confucius Institutes around the world — was a harsh critic of Confucius. While a young radical, he wrote bitterly about what he saw as the misogynistic aspects of Confucian views of family life; later, as head of the PRC, he launched campaigns aimed at ridding the country of all lingering vestiges of Confucianism.

The School of Athens has altered my perspective on the Communist Party’s relationship to Confucius. There is no anti-Aristotle campaign in the Church’s history similar to the one Mao waged against Confucius, but there were points when the early Church banned some of his writings. Raphael’s painting reminds us, however, that by the Renaissance, things like this could be overlooked, much as Mao’s criticisms of Confucius are in today’s China. My tour through the Vatican museum made me realize that Xi’s lionizing of Mao in one breath and then quoting Confucius with approval in the next may not be quite so strange as I once considered it.


After returning from Rome, I continued my examination of how the party and the church venerate their respective leaders, and whether Francis was living up to early expectations regarding his potential as a reformer. I found articles that reminded me of the parallels between the way the Pope and the Chairman of Everything have been framed as public figures. For example, a March 23, 2015, editorial that ran in the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter carried a title that could easily be adapted to serve as the heading for a piece on Xi: “What Kind of Reformer is Francis?” It begins with a line that would work for an essay on China rather than the Vatican with just a couple of word changes: “Any assessment of Pope Francis at the two-year mark of his papacy would do best to first deal with the unrealistic expectations and the disappointment that often drive the discussion over whether he is a true reformer.” It then explains that, while Francis has made bold moves in reining in the bureaucracy, when it comes to some issues such as the status of women within the church hierarchy, his policies remind us that leaders are often both reformers and defenders of tradition.

“Two years into Xi Jinping’s presidency,” a March 3, 2015, Freedom House article that makes a similar point about China’s leader, begins “all hope that China’s new leader could morph into a liberal reformer seems to have vanished.”


Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine. His most recent book is Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (Columbia Global Reports, 2020). He is also the author of books such as Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies from Mark Twain to Manchukuo (Penguin, 2016), co-author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford, 2018, third edition), and the editor or co-editor of several titles. He is the advising editor on China for LARB, a member of the editorial board of Dissent Magazineand a co-founder of UCI’s Forum for the Academy and Public Life. He has written reviews and commentaries for newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, as well as for a wide range of magazines, journals of opinion, and literary reviews, including TLS and The Atlantic. He is an adviser to the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and has been a featured speaker at Internazionale’s Ferrara Festival. Find him on Twitter at @jwassers.


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