inside thoughts on China and beyond

People Persons

 I am not a Catholic but I do want to congratulate Pope Francis wholeheartedly. (Though I do think he would want me to call him Jorge, given his achievements of the last 9 month as a People’s Pope, so I shall.)  Being chosen as Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ doesn’t happen often (well, it happens once a year, of course, but not to the same person). And that Jorge is chosen ahead of Snowdon and Assad is a sign; a writing on the wall. The Great Wall, I hope.

Connecting the Catholic Church with the People’s Republic of China in a 1000-words column (only 897 left!) is quite a stretch, given the stubborn and effective efforts of the latter to disconnect for the last 50 years. But this being China, everything is possible. For example, a few days ago, China’s national broadcast station CCTV has released -you won’t believe this- the “5 Surprising Benefits of Pollution” on its website. Yes, you read it correctly: BENEFITS of pollution. And not just one; five! Here they are:

1. It unifies Chinese people

2. It makes China more equal

3. It raises citizen awareness

4. Chinese people are funnier when they are contending with deadly smog

5. The haze makes Chinese people more knowledgeable

See what I mean? Everything is possible. (I had hoped, just for a small second, that it would make them better drivers too, but apparently not.) Anyway, if they can combine pollution with benefits and fun, connecting the People’s Pope and the People’s Chairman should be a natural match.

The Catholic Church came into being to praise not men, but God, and to serve the people. But along the way, they got it mixed up: man became God and the people were made to serve the church. I have to admit, it is not always easy to keep it straight, but it really got out of hand when the church instigated the crusades and indulgences. This enabled the church to enjoy the splendor of sky-high cathedrals and gold plated palaces and well-stocked tables and cellars amidst the for others so hard and dark ages of old. But don’t think these are matters of the past. Last month, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, bishop of Limburg, Germany, still aspiring the lavish lifestyle of old (or more likely of Elle, or Vogue), build himself a grand mansion -larger even than the neighboring cathedral for his parishioners-  for 34 million Euros.

The Great Wall

Extravagances like this are just a little too self-serving for Jorge, and in his first 9 month in his Vatican office he has shaken up the Catholic establishment that tolerated this. Jorge is leading the church back to the joys of simplicity and care for the poor. He recognizes (the church’s) history for what it undeniably is and does not attempt to hide it. Instead of changing history, he is changing the church. And already, he is called the pope of the people.

And this is precisely how the leaders of the People’s Republic of China have always wanted to be seen: of the people and by the people. And, yes, looking at China’s history, you can’t escape the notion that this old country is build by its people -and here I am following the most recent officially approved version of China’s history (version 163, section b-d). From Shi Huangdi to Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, the people are the cornerstone of the society; the building blocks. And quite literally so, I’m afraid. Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of a united China some 2000 years ago, driven by fear and grandeur, used the people to build the Great Wall. That is to say, thousands of people are stuffed away in the wall as filling.

Mao, who saw Shi Huangdi as his great example, aimed to free the people from foreign oppression and abuse but soon he too was filled with a growing fear for a shrinking grandeur, and so in the late 1950s he orchestrated the Great Leap Forward. This unprecedented effort to beat Great Britain’s industry aimed to boost China’s self-esteem and show the world the omnipotence of the Chinese leader. The pages in the officially approved version of China’s history (version 163, section ?) about the Great Leap Forward are blank. In fact, the Great Leap Forward is not mentioned at all. In less than 5 years, Mao’s yearning for prestige and admiration lead an estimated 36 million people –Chinese people- to their death. Quite an astonishing number to hide, especially in light of China’s continues anger about the Japanese atrocities against the Chinese in WWII. They killed 20 million Chinese. Why does this reminds me of pots and kettles that are all black?

And Xi Jinping? Will he connect with Jorge or follow his predecessors footsteps? The signs are clear: just after the death of Nelson Mandela, state media published comments that “the praise to Mandela was a little overdone “and that “Mandela called himself a student of Chairman Mao but has never amounted to his greatness”. So it seems that, to win the hearts of his people -preferably alive- and rally their support, Jinping is, unfortunately, not planning to connect with Jorge, but with Mao.

Well, there we are. I guess I have miserably failed in my efforts and you have read this all for nothing. But despite my doubt of the meaningfulness of this Time award – even Assad, the one that is slowly slaughtering his own people in Syria, was considered as one of the finalists- I still want to congratulate Jorge, this new pope of the people, and hope the people of China will too.

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