At the start of visits to China, I'm often awake in hotel rooms very early in the morning due to jetlag. With hours to kill until the street stalls selling steamed buns open, I flip through news channels comparing the way the stories of the day are treated on CNN, the BBC, and CCTV (China Central Television). I'll occasionally nod off during this boredom-battling exercise, or leave the television on as background noise while I leaf through a newspaper or click through a book on my Kindle. This kind of dazed and distracted bilingual channel surfing is always a bit disorienting, but it took on particularly surreal dimensions a month ago, when I happened to be in Shanghai when Xi Jinping's installation as China's new president neared and the selection of a new pope was underway. What made it so strange was how hard it could be to figure out at first, when I toggled between networks or woke up from a catnap, whether a newscaster was talking about Beijing or about Rome.
- The Kyrgyz of Northern Afghanistan
- Pakistan's 'Peace Rickshaws'
- Celebrating Norouz Around the World
- The Plight of Burmese Refugees in Thailand
For example, in discussions of both Xi and the next pope (then still unidentified), broadcasters could be heard referring to a decision that would affect a population of over one billion people. They speculated on the likelihood that the new man in charge (no doubt about that the gender of the person selected in Rome would be the same as the one in Beijing) would be a "conservative" or a "reformer," and also mused about whether his predecessor would fade away completely or exert some influence from behind the scenes. In both cases, Western reporters spoke of complex bureaucratic organizations that had been rocked by scandals, that many outsiders viewed as plagued by corruption, and that had traditionally been loathe to admit that they had made mistakes. Commentators also talked, in each case, of selection processes that were mysterious and cloaked in secrecy.
If the sound coming out of the television was Chinese, I generally thought it was safe to assume that a report on a change of leaders would be about Beijing rather than Rome. I was particularly confident about this after hearing a BBC report that described China as one of the only places in the world where there was relatively little interest in the conclave of cardinals. In the wee hours of the next morning, though, I woke up from dozing to find that CCTV was running a mini-documentary on how new popes are chosen.