As you are aware, the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church on Wednesday identified a new leader. You may not have heard, however, that the 1.3 billion citizens of China did as well, and just a few hours later.
The ascension of Pope Francis, with its centuries of tradition, dramatic special effects, and multiple, secret ballots, understandably captured the public imagination. As of this writing, Google News returns some 4.8 million results for the name Bergoglio. The election of Xi Jinping as president of China early this morning happened with much less fanfare, in a public vote at the National People's Congress. While it took Francis five contested votes to cobble together the 77 vote margin needed for victory, Xi got the job done in one ballot, gaining approval with the respectable tally of 2,955-1. He lost the Google News margin, however, having garnered only about 61,500 mentions to this point.
Granted, Xi's election came as no surprise. As The New York Times notes, the 59-year-old Xi was picked as the general secretary of the Communist Party four months ago, making his election as president largely a formality. The Congress also selected Xi's ally Li Yuanchao as vice president.
It's a tricky moment for a transition of power. Xi inherits a number of significant challenges from his predecessor. The Associated Press describes the nation's growing discontent.
An increasingly vocal Chinese public is expressing impatience with the government's unfulfilled promises to curb abuses of power by local officials, better police the food supply and clean up the country's polluted rivers, air and soil.
"What do ordinary people care about? Food safety, and smog if you are in a big city, and official corruption," said the prominent Chinese author and social commentator Murong Xuecun, the pen name of author Hao Qun. "They just want to have a peaceful, stable and safe life. To have money and food, and live without worry of being tortured, or having their homes forcefully demolished."
Xi, the son of what Reuters describes as a "reformist former vice premier," will be confronted with calls for reform. But it seems unlikely to observers that the country will see a major change under Xi. Again, from The Times:
Mr. Xi has ... rejected any turn to Western-inspired political liberalization and demanded utter loyalty from officials and the military.
“I think that he’s attracted to the idea of a kind of enlightened dictatorship, or neo-authoritarianism. He rejects fundamental political reform, but he wants a cleaner, more efficient government that is closer to the public,” said Li Weidong, a former magazine editor in Beijing who is a prominent commentator on politics.
In this tension, too, Xi's selection echoes that of Pope Francis. Both come to power at a moment of challenge and dissension among their core constituencies. Each carries an imperative for reform, but neither is likely to radically upend the systems that brought them to power. And each will now follow a different path. Francis' moment of international attention has likely peaked. Xi, still largely anonymous to the world, will now take his place in the brightest lights of the global stage.