The coincidence was too blatant to ignore.
Two organisations, each with a membership of more than a billion, elected a new leader this week. On Wednesday a new Pope, Francis, was elevated to lead the worldwide congregation of 1.2bn Roman Catholics. And the next day Xi Jinping was formally elected President of the 1.3bn citizens of the People’s Republic of China.
Of course the two occasions weren’t alike. We don’t know how many of the 115 cardinals assembled in Rome voted for the Argentinian Jorge Bergoglio, although it had to be at least two thirds. We do know how many of the nearly 3,000 deputies to the National People’s Congress in Beijing marked their ballots for Mr Xi. It was 2,952, with one against and three abstentions. The fate of the single naysayer is unknown.
The two organisations have more in common than arcane systems of secret voting and closed-door dealing when choosing their leaders. Both are global powers whose choice of leader matters to the world at large, and not just because of the number of members they can deploy. Each is faced with huge internal problems of scandal and internecine strife, and in both cases the change in leadership at the top has aroused great waves of hope for reform and renewal.
Easier said than done. We live in an age when the face of power has become more personalised and influential. But we also live in a time when the actual management of huge organisations has been made more difficult, both by sheer size and by the spread of information that activates dissenters and empowers local protest. “Too big to fail” was the mantra that preceded the fall of the big banks, and it has done the same for a succession of once all-powerful conglomerates and international companies, from ICI to GEC.
No one man, or even a small group, can manage an enterprise of billions. Yet billion-strong groups still need to be led. The bigger the organisation, the more important a single face is, in acting as a unifying factor. Not for nothing have despots and leaders encouraged the cult of personality, commissioning their own statues, portraits and biographies and demanding, as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong did, that every office carry their pictures. The problem is how to maintain this appeal for loyalty to the father figure after the dominating figure is dead and you are having to change the guard at regular intervals.
The Catholic Church starts off with the advantage that any new face at the top, however unknown, becomes instantly recognisable through its network of churches and the bulletins of its parishes. It doesn’t matter how many Popes have gone before, and how bad some of them were: each new man is seen with new hope and special reverence. That is a matter of religion but also a matter of bringing unity to so diverse and far flung an organisation.
The Communist Party of China, with its culture of conformity and its rejection of the cult of personality, finds it a great deal more difficult to put a face on power. The commentators may say, as the delegates stand to clap their new hierarchy, that these are the figures that the world will come to know, but even within China itself, they remain a representative symbol rather than an individual person. The new man (for, like the Catholic Church, they are all men) will try to be seen out and about and to put a more human face on the machine. But he remains, in principle at least, a first among equals in a committee structure.
Managing a billion people, or at any rate hundreds of millions of them, is not impossible for one man. Genghis Khan ruled much of the known world in his day, and Mao imposed drastic change on a population of well over half a billion. But they did this through war, famine or brute force. Fear, as the world learnt through the 20th century, can be instilled by the combination of a dedicated security force kept sweet by special privileges and a network of informers induced to spy on their neighbours.
We are not in that situation with the Roman Catholic and Chinese appointments, although it should not be forgotten that both institutions maintain an apparatus for ensuring discipline through the punishment and exclusion of those they regard as threats.
The difficult question for both institutions at this point is how far the necessity for reform demands a top-down reworking of the machinery of government, and how far this can be done through a more collegiate approach. Pope Francis clearly favours the latter course. He was elected largely on the grounds that, appalled at the scandals and sense of decay in the Roman curia, the prelates of the church were looking for someone who would restore power, or at least consultation, to the bishops. The church has the necessary mechanisms, in the regional and worldwide convocations of bishops.
It also has the experience. The great reforms of Gregory VII in the 11th century, the policy of renewal in the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century, and the modernisation under John XXIII in the 20th century, were carried out through special councils which tied the local leadership in to agreed change. In each case, though, a commanding figure was still needed to set the tone and lay out a clear programme. The change still had to be managed – or at least led.
The direction in which Mr Xi will take his party has still to be seen. As tends to be the case with people who rise to the top of giant organisations, he is not a natural reformer. Rather, he was born into the hierarchy as the son of a prominent official and has risen almost anonymously through the ranks.
Most of the pressures on the party come from those who want it to loosen its domination, not increase it. But major change can only come from the top down. Reform isn’t impossible, as the liberalisations of Deng Xiaoping (or Mikhail Gorbachev, for that matter), have shown. But it is, to put it mildly, problematic.
For the Communists, as for Catholics, the dichotomy is unyielding. People love a star, but they hate central control and are increasingly suspicious of large organisations. How you square that circle no one has yet answered.
Name: Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Birthplace: Buenos Aires
Residence: Vatican City
Height: 5ft 11in
In charge of: 1.2bn Catholics
Reach: Global (but strongest in South America and Europe)
Career highlights: Joined the Society of Jesus, 1958; ordained, 1969; consecrated, 1992; Archbishop of Buenos Aires, 1998-2013; created cardinal, 2001; elected Pope, 2013.
Remunerations: No salary, but free board and lodging. And should he choose to retire he could presumably hope for a package comparable to his predecessor’s – that is, a pension of €2,500-a-month and a comfortable retirement home.
Skeletons: Accused of failing to resist Argentina’s military junta during its dirty war on “subversives” in the 1970s. He disputes this.
Private life: Unrequited flirtation with Amalia Damonte 60 years ago.
Mentor: Ukrainian priest Stepan Czmil, a missionary in Argentina and now buried in the basilica of St Sophia in Rome.
Mission statement: “There are priests who don’t baptise the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage… These are today’s hypocrites... Those who separate the people of God from salvation.”
President of China
Name: Xi Jinping
Height: 6ft 1in
In charge of: 1.3 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China
Reach: Mainly confined to China, but with considerable and growing economic influence worldwide.
Career: Born into the political class. Briefly exiled to the countryside as a teenager when his father was purged in the Cultural Revolution. Joined the Communist Youth League in 1971, and the Communist Party of China in 1974. Governor of Fujian Province from 2000. Joined Politburo Standing Committee in 2007, becoming China’s Vice-President in 2008.
Remuneration: The equivalent of around £8,000 a year – officially.
Skeletons: Hidden wealth. A report by Bloomberg last year suggested that his family have accumulated assets worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
Private life: Married to Peng Liyuan, a superstar folk-singer.
Mentor: Jiang Zemin, who helped him reach the Party’s Central Committee in 1997.
Mission statement: “Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger pointing at us. China does not export revolution... it does not export famine and poverty and it does not mess around with you. What else is there to say?”