In late September Pope Francis and President Xi Jinping happened to visit America at the same time. The coincidence was unremarkable. Both men were there for the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York. But it afforded Chinese officials a glimpse into something they may not have fully understood: the international stature and popular appeal of the pope. American media covered his every move—each appearance before an adoring crowd, and each ride he took in his humble little Fiat—while paying much less attention to Mr Xi (whose crowds included far fewer supporters and many more protesters than the pope’s).
Chinese officials were “shocked and flabbergasted” by the difference in the responses to the two leaders’ visits, says a Vatican analyst in Beijing. “They thought Xi Jinping was the emperor, the most important guy, and then along came this man in white to overshadow him.” Some observers believe that officials’ awakening to the pope’s popularity may help encourage them to improve relations with the Vatican after decades of diplomatic estrangement. China craves the admiration of great powers. The Vatican may be puny in size, but in soft power it is hard to match.
Relations were already warming up before the two men went to America. In August China’s Catholic church appointed a bishop for the first time in three years. The consecration of Joseph Zhang Yinlin, in the central province of Henan, was striking: it had been approved not only by China’s state-linked church, but also by the Vatican. Also noteworthy was China’s decision in July to allow a bishop who had been appointed in secret by the Vatican to begin working openly. These developments suggested that the two sides were trying to work out ways of co-ordinating their efforts again in the naming of bishops. In 2011 and 2012 the Vatican had excommunicated two who had been appointed by China’s church without papal approval. Another bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, had the backing of both sides when he was appointed in 2012. But Bishop Ma’s renunciation of the Chinese church at his consecration ceremony had caused co-operation to break down.
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