FRANCIS THE FIRST: Both the Roman Catholic Church and the People’s Republic of China are struggling to find a fresh pitch in the contemporary world. Yet, it is curious that while the selection of Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new Pope of the Catholic Church, with 1.2 billion followers worldwide, held the international media spellbound, China, in sharp contrast, received scant attention.
Notwithstanding its financial and sexual scandals, from an African and an Arab perspective, the Catholic Church is a far more attractive aside than the Chinese Communist Party. Jihad Al-Khazen in the London-based Pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat aptly summed up the obsession by Arab pundits with the Papal cabal and its considerable influence in a region where it has few adherents. “The conservative Argentinian Cardinal will be known as Pope Francis, and will become the 266th pope in Saint Peter’s church. Here, I propose that Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and its head, Dr Ahmed Al-Tayeb, initiate a dialogue with the new pope to foster cooperation against the government of Israel and its racist-colonial policies,” said Al-Khazen. “I hope I am clear in that I am not calling for a declared or secret alliance, but only cooperation, and not against Jews or even Israel, but against a government of murderous war criminals that has left Israel in dangerous isolation around the world, as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, said a few days ago in Washington DC,” he concluded.
The question is why are Arab pundits preoccupied with the Pope and not with the Chinese Communists? Has anyone heard of the Sino-Arab Cooperation Forum? How many Arab readers know that the Caliph Othman Ibn Affan sent an embassy to the Tang court at Chang’an?
Perhaps it is unfair to draw comparisons between Beijing and the Vatican. China and the Catholic Church have comparable populations, 1,400 billion and 1,200 billion respectively. The Catholic Church is an influential religious institution while China is a great global economic power.
This is no criterion for making comparisons, yet the question remains: Why is Pope Francis, and not the newly elected Chinese Communist Party hierarchy illuminated by the glare of international publicity? How many Arab readers can recall the name of the new Chinese president? Or, the new secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party?
And another puzzle: Why is it that every Pope who appeared on the Church’s stage was either magnified or maligned, almost beyond recognition? The Vatican, after all, is a tiny state in no way economically important to the African and Arab worlds. Its sole significance, perhaps, is its religious and moral authority.
Perhaps what Beijing and the Vatican do have in common is that their global importance is their example. But, their example of what? The Chinese Communist Party, in spite of its totalitarian authoritarianism, has lifted the Chinese people from abject poverty and punishing backwardness.
This is a success which is worthy of note. So why then does the Vatican’s example assume a significance, and indeed an influence, out of all proportion to its economic prowess?
THE ROAD TOWARDS RENEWAL: The story of China’s ruling Communist Party and its top national political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is remarkable precisely because it is the case history of the barriers and antagonisms which hobble the world’s most powerful totalitarian state and the second largest economy after that of the United States of America.
The CPPCC has throughout its tumultuous history been the victim of its own ideological ambiguity and the subconscious presumptions of others, including foreign powers, often adversaries, local dissident Chinese and the often critical overseas Chinese communities that have come in recent decades to play an increasingly prominent role in domestic Chinese affairs, not least in the economic arena.
Western-style multiparty democracy and Chinese one-party rule are two contending and incompatible systems of government. Most developing nations in Africa and the Arab world have chosen to follow in the footsteps of their former colonial masters, the Western powers. Having said so, mistaken presumptions about the Chinese communist system of government go far deeper than contemporary caricatures of Soviet Stalinism.
It would be wrong to assume that the CPPCC, outmoded as it might appear today in a world of Western-style democracies, is a plea for the political monopoly of the one-party state in all spheres of life in the world’s most populous nation. China’s top political advisers, who represent a broad spectrum of prominent people in business, academia, finance and other spheres, closed their annual meeting on 12 March pledging loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party and a rejection of Western-style multiparty democracy.
The advisory body is supposed to represent Chinese democracy at work. The CPPCC’s newly appointed chairman, Yu Zhengsheng, said in closing this year’s session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that the advisory body would stand by the ruling Communist party’s senior members with China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, at the helm. Just as in an entirely different context Catholics rally around the Pope.
In Communist China, the fight against poverty, underdevelopment, hunger and illiteracy is of paramount importance. Yet, the economic gap between rich and poor in contemporary China is widening. Party leaders are acutely aware that this is not a very comfortable heritage for them to leave their children and grandchildren. Moreover, the ruling party is the pre-eminent political power and top government posts are held by the party’s handpicked leaders.
“We need to more strictly follow the socialist path of political development with Chinese characteristics, not imitate Western political systems under any circumstances,” Yu told the assembly of more than 2,000 CPPCC advisers of the Chinese parliament, commonly perceived in the West as a rubber-stamp legislature with no political clout.
Yu, an official best known for his communist pedigree, was selected to lead the body on 11 March. The CPPCC is deemed to have no real power, nevertheless, today it has become something of a popular forum to advocate for hot-button issues of public concern such as food safety, pollution and land seizures.
Yu’s appointment received precious little attention in the Arab or African media and yet China is the African continent’s most important trading partner. Yu’s rise to the top of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy was the latest step in China’s once-a-decade political transition. It is a system that has yielded tremendous economic results and yet has not been emulated by Arab or African countries.
Yu’s ascension kicked off a week of systematic Chinese government leadership changes that were foreshadowed by promotions at the Communist Party’s congress last November. Yu was among seven leaders who ascended to the party’s top inner circle in November that also appointed Xi as secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party. Yu, ranked fourth in the party, is poised to play a prominent role in his country’s political future.
In contemporary China, economics is becoming just as significant as politics or military matters. The governor of the People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, was named one of the vice chairman of the CPPCC. This week, amid much pomp and ceremony, the National People’s Congress, or legislature, finalised the transition of key political positions and approved appointments to top government posts: Xi Jinping succeeded Hu Jintao as Chinese president while Li Keqiang, the party’s number two, was named prime minister, in charge of the Chinese cabinet.
The fact that Pope Francis excited world comment and the new Chinese leadership failed to do so cannot be excused or explained away by a hostile Western press. The bad press, however, does not diminish from China’s stature in the international community, nor does it deflect from the changes underway such as the renewed interest in China itself with the degradation of the country’s water, air and soil that has resulted from decades of rapid economic growth.
Subtle political and social changes, also, are afoot. China’s rising middle class, empowered by social networking technology, is increasingly vocal about its demands for change and willing to organise demonstrations. There is no Arab Spring in China as yet, however, Chinese President Xi faces a new China in the making, and he knows it. He inaugurated “The Road Towards Renewal” exhibition in Beijing, pledging to continue targeting the goal of “great renewal of the Chinese nation”.
Prominent members of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, including Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli, were also in attendance. During his inspection of the exhibition, Xi noted how the West had occupied China’s territories, established concessions and drew up spheres of influence in the not so distant past. He also stopped before the first Chinese version of the Communist Manifesto, material exhibits and photos relating to the founding of the CPC in 1921, the autobiography of one of CPC founders Li Dazhao, the first national flag of the People’s Republic of China, and photos on the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee at which the legendary Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched the epoch-making modernisation of contemporary China.
Making a keynote speech during his visit, Xi quoted one of Mao Zedong’s poems stressing that China had suffered historic hardship in contemporary times. “But the Chinese people have never given in, have struggled ceaselessly, and have finally taken hold of its own destiny and started the great process of building our nation,” he emphasised. “It has displayed, in full, the great national spirit with patriotism as the core.”
Xi, nevertheless, alluded to the complicated pressures that challenge contemporary China. “It is the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he unabashedly concluded.
CHINESE PROSPECTIVE: Yu Zhengsheng, likewise, made similar remarks at a symposium attended by leaders of the eight non-Communist parties and the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, as well as celebrities without party affiliations. Yu also highlighted his conviction that the onus of contemporary China is the upholding and constructing of a unique socialism with Chinese characteristics. The really interesting question is why the stress on “Chinese characteristics” should have arisen at all and particularly over such a broad front of high-ranking Chinese Communist officials.
The CPPCC also has the representation of compatriots of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, returned overseas Chinese, and specially invited international guests. And, Yu perhaps had them in mind when he mentioned “multi-party cooperation”. He expressed hope that non-Communist parties can improve their ideological and organisational systems and working styles to enable them to make sound leadership reshuffles during their own national congresses so as to promote multi-party cooperation. Presumably, by emulating the Chinese Communists. Superficially, it may appear that the current members of the CPPCC have reversed the tenets of Maoism. The CPPCC, technically or theoretically, are representatives of the Chinese Communist and non-Communist parties, personages without party affiliation, and representatives of civil society or so-called people’s organisations, ethnic minorities and various social strata. The speech, themed “Firmly uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics and study, promote and implement the spirit of the 18th CPC National Congress,” was delivered by Xi during a workshop attended by members of the Political Bureau of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee.
It would be wrong to say that the attitude of high-ranking officials at the 18th CPC National Congress was in no way influenced by high-minded principles. Sensing a growing environmental crisis, a third of the delegates rejected a key anti-pollution measure. China analysts are now anticipating major economic reforms from the new administration in Beijing after Premier Li Keqiang declared that more sections of the economy needed to be handed over to private enterprise. “China is a great nation with great creativity,” Xi Jingping declared, “We created this Chinese culture and we will be able to expand our path towards Chinese development.”
China’s new generation of leaders seem to be committed to capitalism in spite of all the talk about Communism. The world should be watching closely how the country’s current leadership is steering China towards the so-called “China dream”.
Those who study historical myths may be pardoned for wondering whether contemporary China has been called into existence out of pure Maoist beneficence so that Beijing may prove the West wrong. Whatever the myth, it is difficult to escape from the conclusion that so far as those in power in Africa and the Arab world are concerned it is not so much China’s denial of civil liberty that makes Francis I a more arresting media ruse, but that the enchantment not with China, but with the Catholic Church is motivated by something else.