Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony at Villa Madama in Rome during Xi's two-day visit to Italy in March 2019. Photo: Christian Minelli/NurPhoto

On March 26 during Xi Jinping’s visit to France for a visit, Xinhua News Agency published an article titled “Five years on, Xi’s vision of civilization more revealing in an uncertain world.” Recalling the Chinese president’s speech at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris in March 2014, the highly censored country’s official news agency depicted him as the man who lays out “a vision of civilization that features diversity, equality and inclusiveness” and claimed: “Five years on, China is joining various countries and regions to promote inter-civilization exchanges.”

According to the state-run agency, such a vision consists of three fundamental components, namely harmony without uniformity, inclusiveness and learning from each other, and a global community with a shared future.

Undeniably, in that speech, Xi spoke eloquently about those principles and implicitly presented himself as their ardent champion. For instance, he orated that “civilizations are equal, and such equality has made exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations possible.”

He then went on to say: “I have visited many places in the world. The best thing I wanted to do [was] to learn about differing civilizations across the five continents, what makes them different and unique, how their people think about the world and life and what they hold dear.”

That’s why in its commentary, Xinhua claimed: “Over the past five years, the Chinese president has visited more than 50 countries, and during his trips he has cited Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, British playwright William Shakespeare, and US author Mark Twain to forge cultural exchanges, and to offer to the world the Chinese idea of upholding inclusiveness.”

What’s more, it asserted, “In the eyes of Western observers, Xi is a master at telling stories, and his stories are usually both entertaining and meaningful.”

All this is nothing new to many China watchers.

On the international stage, Xi has repeatedly preached about how to build a better world and his 2014 UNESCO speech was only one example. Undeniably, Xi is a master – if not the master – of preaching about this, as very few, if any, world leaders could match him in this area.

Xinhua’s March 26 article was also just one of numerous hagiographic accounts that the agency and China’s propaganda machines in general have produced about the country’s paramount leader.

For instance, in November 2017, a few months after he was extraordinarily exulted at the Communist Party of China’s 19th National Congress, Xinhua released a lengthy glowing profile of Xi, in which it used a wide range of fawning words and titles to depict him. These included its portrayal of Xi as a “man who makes things happen” and “a world leader,” whose “extensive knowledge of literature and the arts makes him a consummate communicator in the international arena.”

But preaching is one thing and practicing another. Some people may now be indifferent to, or even tired of, Xi’s grand rhetoric and Xinhua’s propaganda because they are not only constantly repeated but also do not reflect China’s reality under Xi – the country’s most authoritarian ruler since Mao Zedong,

In his UNESCO address, Xi orated beautifully about diversity, equality, inclusiveness and harmony without uniformity, yet his regime has done very little – and in some areas, the opposite – of what he preached

For instance, in his UNESCO address, Xi orated beautifully about diversity, equality, inclusiveness and harmony without uniformity, yet his regime has done very little – and in some areas, the opposite – of what he preached. The Xi regime’s Sinicization – a concerted campaign aimed at persuading or even forcing Muslim, Buddhist and Christian leaders to fuse their religions with Chinese characteristics, notably its socialist thought – is an illustrative case in point.

In remarks in Hong Kong early last month, Samuel Brownback, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said that “it is alarming that Chinese government authorities have arbitrarily detained members of Muslim minority groups [in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region] in internment camps for reasons including common religious practices, such as having a beard, wearing a veil, attending services, observing Ramadan, sharing religious writings, or even praying.”

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and other international human-rights and civil-society organizations have also accused China of forcing Uighurs and Muslim minorities into “political indoctrination” and “renunciation of their faith.”

To many people, by coercively homogenizing China’s ethnic minorities, notably Uighur Muslims, in the way that they dress and behave like the Han Chinese population or compelling the religions in the country to embrace its so-called “socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” the CPC, which is officially atheist, does not promote diversity, equality and inclusiveness but uniformity, monopoly and exclusiveness.

In his UNESCO speech, Xi also claimed, “In the course of some two thousand years and more, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity have been introduced into China successively.” Yet Christians and Muslims remain minority groups in the world’s most populous country. They are even oppressed and persecuted.

In many ways, the one-party authoritarian regime in Beijing, which has ruled the People’s Republic of China with absolute power since its foundation in 1949 and become increasingly autocratic since Xi came to power in 2012-13, is antithetical to political diversity, equality of rights and religious freedom.

Xi and his apologists present him as a globetrotter who is eager to travel the world, to meet people from other countries and cultures in order to “enrich the colors of various civilizations,” “open up a future with more options,” “forge cultural exchanges and to offer to the world the Chinese idea of upholding inclusiveness.”

But, again, he doesn’t always do what he says.

Xi skips Vatican visit

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has, on many occasions, expressed his love for China and his strong desire to overcome obstacles, foster dialogue and build a diplomatic bridge with the country of more than 1.3 billion people, stating that “the doors and the hearts [of  the Holy See and the Catholic Church] are open.”

Ahead of Xi’s arrival in Italy on March 21 for a three-day visit last month, when asked about the possibility of a meeting between Xi and the Argentine Pope, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said: “Our door is always open.”

Yet despite such overtures from the Holy See and the fact that the two sides reached a provisional agreement over bishop nominations in September 2018, the meeting did not take place.

It is common that heads of state coming to Rome meet with the Pope, before or after their meetings with the Italian authorities.

When visiting Italy in recent years, all Vietnamese leaders met with the Catholic Church’s spiritual leader. Former prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, former president Nguyen Minh Triet and Nguyen Phu Trong, current general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) and president, held talks with Pope Benedict in 2007, 2009 and 2013 respectively. Dung and Tran Dai Quang, Vietnam’s late president, were received by Pope Francis in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

In March 2014, Nguyen Sinh Hung, then chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly (parliament), had an audience with Pope Francis.

Trong’s high-level delegation to the Vatican in 2013 included Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam’s then deputy prime minister and current prime minister. In Vietnam’s political system, the quartet — namely party chief (general secretary), state president, prime minister and parliament chairman — are the four highest-ranking officials.

Like North Korea and China, Vietnam is among the few countries in the world that have not established diplomatic ties with the Vatican. Yet such a lack of diplomatic ties didn’t prevent its leaders from meeting with the Pope

Like North Korea and China, Vietnam is among the few countries in the world that have not established diplomatic ties with the Vatican. Yet such a lack of diplomatic ties didn’t prevent its leaders from meeting with the Pope.

That said, unlike their communist comrades in Pyongyang and Beijing, Vietnamese leaders agreed to let the Vatican name a non-resident papal representative to the country in 2011.  At the seventh meeting of their joint working group in Hanoi last December, Vietnam and the Holy See agreed to upgrade ties from non-permanent pontifical representative to permanent pontifical representative “in the near future,” paving the way for the Holy See and Hanoi to establish full diplomatic relations.

With a territory of only 44 hectares, smaller than China’s Forbidden City (72 hectares), about 1,000 “citizens” by residence, not by birth and without an army and with a non-commercial economy, the tiny city-state is materially almost non-existent, especially when compared with China – the world’s biggest country by population, second-greatest by economy and military and fourth-largest by land area.

Still, with about 1.3 billion followers (almost the size of China’s population) worldwide and considerable global “soft power,” especially in its role in promoting dialogue, inter-civilization exchange and peace in the world, the Holy See is a force to be reckoned with.

That’s why countries of different sizes, regimes and cultures all over the world seek to maintain diplomatic ties or contacts with the Holy See. In fact, it now has diplomatic ties with 183 nations – more than China. According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, after El Salvador’s decision to switch allegiance from Taiwan, formally called the Republic of China (ROC), to Beijing in August 2018, the PRC has diplomatic ties with 178 countries.

Pope Francis’ visits to the United Arab Emirates in February and Morocco last month show both the eagerness of the Catholic Church, and the Argentine Pope in particular, and the willingness of these two Muslim-dominated countries to foster (interfaith) dialogue, tolerance, solidarity, cooperation, religious freedom and peace.

Of course, there are many reasons behind China’s past rupture and current disagreements with the Vatican, preventing rapprochement between the two sides.

Yet whatever those reasons may be, the mere fact that China remains one of the very few countries, including North Korea, that do not have any diplomatic ties with the Vatican, and that Xi Jinping did not meet with Pope Francis when he was in Rome last month, illustrate that much of his 2014 UNESCO speech remains rhetoric, and Xinhua’s March 26 commentary about the strongman leader is largely propagandistic and sycophantic.

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