What Do Xi and the Pope Have in Common?

One's a powerful leader for life. The other's Xi Jinping – Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Five years ago, when Xi Jinping became President and Francis became Pope in the same month, I wrote a playful piece suggesting that the question in my title could be answered in the affirmative. One inspiration for this was finding, as I toggled between broadcasts on CNN and other networks, that the ascensions of Xi and Francis were being described in very similar ways. There was talk, in each case, of a small group of men using a secretive process to decide which of them should be the next leader of about one-and-a-half billion people. There was speculation over whether the new leader would be a bold reformer or a stay-the-course type. There was also some musing on whether the new leader’s predecessor, who had just stepped down, would fade away or try to exert influence from behind the scenes.


One Country, Three Systems

The limits on freedom in today’s PRC – by Jeffrey Wasserstrom

When journalists interviewed me during the lead-up to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress, some grew frustrated by my unwillingness to make predictions. In dodging their forecast questions, I often played the history card.  “Historians like me,” I would say, “are more comfortable focusing on the past than the future.” I sometimes added that it was worth noting how misguided much of the prognosticating chatter about Xi Jinping had been five years before when he first ascended to power. Many analysts seemed certain in 2012 that Hu Jintao’s successor was likely to be either another colorless status quo-maintaining figure or a reformer, perhaps even a liberalizer. In fact, Xi has turned out to be something quite different: a strongman leader with a growing personality cult.

Some illiberal trends were already underway during the second half of Hu’s decade at the top, which lasted from 2002 to 2012, but Xi, far from being a liberalizer, has ratcheted up controls over many spheres of activity. What I could have mentioned to the reporters, but did not, was that I remain keenly aware of how wrong I was myself just over twenty years ago when I slipped up and made a prediction.