Rulers of 1.2 billion

The Catholic Church and the Chinese government, within a 24 hour space, both finalized their leaders. The church chose and anointed Pope Francis. The party completed its leadership succession by appointing Xi Jinping as president of China, the third and last position he needed to become the new ruler of the Middle Kingdom.

The number of Catholics and Chinese in the world are roughly the same: they are each around 1.2 billion strong. And they overlap by a few tens of millions, depending on exactly how many Catholic Christians there are. After that, however, the two institutions are about as far apart as human organisations come. And that difference is why the expectations of Pope Francis and President Xi have so much distance between them.

The church is, in effect, a networked global civil society. Beijing is a super-state, a remarkably control freaky government. The pope offers guidance and then tries to keep his scattered flock walking down the path he has offered. Xi has to get his party leadership behind him, but he effectively rules by collective diktat.

Yet Pope Francis, like most popes in recent times, will face no threat of overthrow and whatever dissent he faces will be small ripples on otherwise placid ocean. Xi, like all his predecessors, will fret about social unrest and challenges to the party authority. China is cracking down on something or another pretty much all the time.

The difference I ascribe to the pope’s having a greater legitimacy than a Chinese president. Authority is about the exercise of power without violence — the greater the authority, the less the violence. The secret sauce is legitimacy. If people believe a government or person is exercising legitimate power, most of them will obey, even if they grumble.

A lack of legitimacy requires authority that has to often be coercive in nature. People will be prone to disobey or even revolt if they believe the power behind the orders is questionable.

A pope, being the intermediary between his followers and the word of god, is pretty hard to beat when it comes to legitimacy. There is little unanimity within the Catholic about a host of issues. But no one is calling for the overthrow of the pope.

Xi will emerge arguably the strongest Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. But he will obsesses with internal security as much as his predecessors. If he is to carry out second generation economic reforms in Chine, the mandate of heaven will become uneasy as the social pain of the reforms bites.

But Pope Francis will be hard put to do root and branch change in his sprawling organisation. Assuming, of course, that he even wants to do so. Chinese reform, going by past record, will be relatively rapid, top down and will not lack for political will.

Xi is already shoring up his legitimacy by loudly broadcasting austerity and trying to portray himself as “a man of the people.” The pope doesn’t have to — that was already built into his lifestyle and, in any case, he doesn’t need that sort of public relations gimmickry.

China’s political legitimacy has traditionally derived from a small elite ruling through the application of “correct ideology.” Right now, the ideological content of Beijing’s rule is very thin. The church, for all its internal rows, is still quite coherent. It’s almost self-defining: if you lose your faith, you cease to be part of the flock.

Beijing congratulated Pope Francis and then warned him against interfering in the Chinese Catholic Church’s internal runnings — a long running feud between the two. The Vatican is not known to have responded. All the cards lie in China’s hands. But the lesson of the Dalai Lama is that a moral dissident can remain very powerful if he or she can continue to hold the high ground. Religious leaders lack power, but they have legitimacy in spades. And this gives them the strength to quietly wait out temporal opponents.

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