The Chinese, Haitao, is a physicist, the American, Bill, a mathematician. They know each other from graduate school in the US. Haitao returned to Shanghai and is employed in cloud computing by a state owned enterprise, while Bill presently works in the Netherlands in a microchip manufacturing company. They ran into each other at a conference in London.
They sit at a table in a street side café.
Bill – The 20th Communist Party Congress has just started. You think Xi will be reelected for a third term?
Haitao – No doubt. He has done a great job cleaning out corruption and the people admire him.
My worry is that he is too autocratic.
Bill – He will go for a 4th term?
Haitao (laughs) – Probably. And a fifth. Will die in office, like his idol Mao.
Bill – You think China will keep growing the way it has?
Haitao – Yes. Maybe slow down a little but not much. One of the things we have found is a sense of purpose. You don’t have that.
Bill – You mean a sense of purpose as a nation?
Haitao – Exactly.
Bill – And what would that be?
Haitao – To become the dominant nation in the world.
Bill – Dominant?
Haitao – Yes. We want to be number one. And we’re willing to sacrifice our personal freedom.
I know freedom is very important to you, but most Chinese are willing to sacrifice it for a higher cause. We have never been number one. You have been number one for a long time. Now you take it for granted.
Bill – Our system allows for very diverse creativity, in many fields, and the limited governmental interference facilitates development. You’ve had enormous growth with companies like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, but now the government has chosen to direct their future growth. Don’t you think that will end up having a negative impact on inventiveness?
Haitao – It could. The government is experimenting, so we have to wait and see. Xi has been very clear about the importance of shared prosperity. In America, you talk about that but are very slow to do it. You have Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security but it’s not enough. There’s a lot of poverty in America. We watch you very closely so we can learn from you. Learn what not to do.
Bill – The distribution of riches, how to do it well without diminishing the creative drive, has been a problem for us. We keep going back and forth on that but there is steady progress in strengthening the safety net.
Haitao – Europeans are ahead of you.
Bill – But there is a stronger enterprising drive in America.
Haitao – To what purpose?
Bill – To become all we can be… maximizing the person’s possibilities.
Haitao – See, that’s the difference between you and us. In China, we think more of the collective. You think more of the individual.
And because of that difference, we now have a national purpose, which you do not.
Bill – I disagree. We want to protect the individual’s liberty, their right to create and acquire wealth… and many wealthy people become philanthropists… and give their money to various causes…
Haitao – That is weak, compared to having a national purpose. The benefit of having such purpose is that it commits the citizens to the task and expects from them that they sacrifice for it. No other nation has progressed so fast in 40 years since Deng Xiaoping began China’s opening to the world. We have taken advantage of everything possible… borrowed and stolen, too… but we have created also… and we have now great confidence in our capacities… and faith that we will become the number one nation in the world very soon.
Bill – How soon?
Haitao – At our current pace, I’d say, in 15 years. Max.
Bill – That’s a short time.
Haitao – We are not afraid of you, anymore. We study you closely, and we see how you can’t agree on things. Your lack of national discipline is frightening. We now have a bigger navy than you do. We don’t want to be like you, anymore. We did before, but not now. We don’t have mass shootings in our country. We don’t have an immigration problem. We don’t have the homelessness that makes your cities ugly. We don’t have racial issues, or just a little bit, but not like you.
In our country, politics is orderly, in your country it’s a circus and a waste and money and energy and talent. It is pitiful to watch it.
Bill – And Taiwan?
Haitao – It’s ours. We will not make the mistake that Putin made in Ukraine. But Russia is a second rate power. When the leadership decides it’s time to take Taiwan, we’ll encircle it and take it. It will be quick. For you to intervene will be too costly, so you’ll stay away and curse your weakness.
Bill – You’re pretty cocky about your power?
Haitao – We will always be friends, Bill, but as a nation, the time for China to replace you as number one is fast approaching. You’ll just have to live with it.
Bill – I think you’re underestimating our strengths…
Haitao – America has grown too fat and overconfident.
Bill – We could surprise you… we’re known for coming together when we have to.
Haitao – There’s always that possibility… but you’re too divided… too angry at each other… too unwilling to compromise… and have shown very poor judgment in whom you elect as President. I’m not talking about Biden, he’s done a good job. But I couldn’t believe your country elected Donald Trump, then failed to impeach him, then let him incite an assault on Capitol Hill, and may reelect him again… or let Republicans win both houses in the midterms.
Something is deeply wrong with your country, and I don’t think you can fix it in time to stop our rise to world dominance. Now is our turn. Your time is past.