Bret Stephens: A Letter to President XiPosted: September 23, 2015
America for One Day
Dear President Xi,
Welcome back! The last time you were stateside—at the Sunnylands estate in California a couple of years ago—you seemed to be at the top of your game. China’s GDP was about to overtake America’s. You were cracking down on corruption, liberalizing markets, setting the pace for what you called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Upper East Siders competed to place their toddlers in Mandarin immersion programs. Newspaper columnists fantasized about the U.S. becoming “China for one day.”
Now your stock market has fizzled, your economy is sinking under the weight of unsustainable debts and zombie companies, your neighbors despise you, and every affluent Chinese is getting a second passport and snapping up a foreign home. Even in Beijing, word is out that behind that enigmatic smile you’re a man overmatched by your job. And out of your depth.
Maybe you’re even thinking: Wouldn’t it be nice to be America for one day?
Yes, America, perhaps the only country on earth that can be serially led by second- or third-rate presidents—and somehow always manage to come up trumps (so to speak). America, where half of the college-age population can’t find New York state on a map—even as those same young Americans lead the world in innovation. America, where Cornel West is celebrated as an intellectual, Miley Cyrus as an artist, Jonathan Franzen as a novelist and Kim Kardashian as a beauty—and yet remains the cultural dynamo of the world.
America, in short, which defies every ethic of excellence—all the discipline and cunning and delicacy and Confucian wisdom that are the ways by which status and power are gained in China—yet manages to produce excellence the way a salmon spawns eggs. Naturally. By way of a deeper form of knowing.
This is indeed the kind of country it would be good to be, at least for a while. In Beijing, the smartest people at the top are working harder than ever to produce increasingly mediocre results. In Washington, the dumbest people ever keep lollygagging their way to glory. When a man, or a country, gets lucky every time, it’s not luck. There’s a secret. Would you like to know it?
Start with the basics, President Xi. The United States solved the problem of political legitimacy through its foundational acts. You still haven’t. We have no umbrella revolutions here, as you just did in Hong Kong. We don’t run the risk of…(read more)
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