Although I enjoyed watching the fireworks on New Year’s Eve yesterday, I must admit it was one of the most restless end of the year celebrations have ever passed. There was nothing wrong with the festivities, and my children were perfectly happy with what they saw, but I kept worrying to myself about the lingering threat of war hinted at by Trump administration in its invective against Iran and North Korea. I could barely sleep for my concerns about the dramatic breakdown of the international institutions that once provided our world leadership.
I fell asleep that New Year’s eve with my mind racing about the lack of commitment to Earth management on the part of leaders who shy away from addressing the true challenges of our age such as the increasing disparity in wealth, ethnic tensions that divide communities and the relentless progress of climate change.
Imagine my surprise when I turned on the computer this morning and watched President Xi Jinping’s New Year’s Greetings. Here was the leader of a major power addressing straight-on, and without any ambiguity, the most serious challenges of our age, and doing so in a manner that was not meant to stir up the fears deep down in the human heart, but rather that appealed to what Abraham Lincoln called “our better angels.” Xi appealed to all Chinese, and all citizens of the Earth to realize their potential to imagine a better world and strive for it.
Although Xi detailed Chinese achievements, he did not refer to ethnic identity at any point. He was speaking to Chinese of all ethnic groups, and to all humans around the world, without exception. There was not a word in the speech about dangerous countries, or about foreigners who will “steal our jobs.”
I could not help thinking about America’s Donald Trump when I heard Xi speak about how pension programs have been extended to 900 million Chinese and how basic medical insurance has been made universally available. In fact, welfare was practically the first thing he mentioned. The number one priority for him was not looking for some conflict with Pyongyang or Tehran, but rather it was taking care of the elderly, and the young--those who need our attention at home.
And he talked at length about the poor. Who are the poor? They have been virtually erased from the media in the West over the last 30 years, creating a grotesquely distorted representation of society. Our media assumes that the working poor do not exist except in that they work as service providers. They do not exist as people, people like us, in our minds. Xi was not talking about the stock market, but rather about how 3.4 million people have been able to get real housing because of government assistance.
I was particularly impressed by Xi’s decision to include a quote from a poem by the Tang poet Du Fu,
“If only I could get tens of thousands of mansions! I would house all the poor people who would then beam with smiles”
Although the import of the selection of this line may be lost on many foreigners, for me it suggested a fundamental shift in views about China’s own past. Sadly, at the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, many leaders felt that Confucianism was but a symptom of the decadent and weak Qing Dynasty that had brought so much suffering to ordinary people through its indifference. The source for a more egalitarian world was found by people like Mao Zedong in the writings of socialist thinkers in the West. But this assumption was based on a serious misunderstanding. Confucius, and his follower Du Fu, displayed a deep concern for the plight of ordinary citizens in their writings, and such a concern for an egalitarian society can be traced far back in Chinese civilization.
The quote also suggests that the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” no longer simply means the importation of Western economic instruments, like special economic zones and stock markets, into a socialist economy. Rather the term also means a deep fusion between traditional Chinese concepts of a healthy society and good governance and the Western socialist tradition since the French Revolution.
Unlike Trump, or most Western leaders, Xi talked explicitly about the need for an ecological civilization, the need to recognize the threat of climate change and the importance of the scientific method as a means of assuring accurate responses to problems through policy. He made no effort to entertain or to seduce the audience. He simply addressed them in a straightforward manner as if they were trusted friends.
Xi was explicit about the importance of the international community at precisely the moment that the liberal establishment in the West is falling apart. He stated,
“The world is one big family. As a responsible country, China will resolutely uphold the authority of the United Nations and work to assure that it conscientiously performs its obligations and responsibilities. China will maintain its commitment to addressing climate change while actively push forward the implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative. We will contribute to the establishment of world peace, the promotion of global development, and the safeguarding of the international order.”
These are the words I want to hear in Washington D.C. but recently even liberal politicians are essentially silent.
And that was not all. When Xi listed China’s recent achievements in science such as the development of the Huiyan Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope, release of a quantum computer and the launch of the Haiyi underwater glider to conduct deep-sea observations, I felt for a moment as if I had been transported back to my childhood. There was a time in America when citizens were inspired by the relentless quest for truth on the part of the government through scientific inquiry. But those days are long gone and the media is rather filled with frightening tales of crime and war that present no meaningful analysis. The scientific method was affirmed as central for Chinese policy at the moment it is losing currency in the West.
But perhaps I was most impressed by his remarks about his conversations with world leaders at global summits and forums. He described a consensus that humanity must take a brave step forward to create a true international community that can plan for mankind’s future, and do so in a manner that benefits people all around the world. He suggested that our primary goal as Earth citizens was not to form alliances against imagined foes, but rather to strive for a better world in which we combine our forces to respond to the tremendous challenges that lie ahead.
In the middle of his speech, Xi took a moment to talk about the remarkable achievements of the ordinary people whose efforts make our society work. He did not dismiss them, but rather suggested that “the patriotic contribution of these people, taken without complaints or regrets, has deeply impressed me. Ordinary people are most extraordinary, Their simple happiness requires tremendous struggle.”
But that focus on the experiences of ordinary people was not unfocused sentimentality. It was followed with a concrete, large-scale plan for response over the next thirty years. Interestingly, Xi used the analogy of a nine-storey pagoda. He notes that to build a pagoda, one must begin with a pile of Earth. The blueprints for the pagoda should be translated into reality methodically.
Xi describes a long-term strategy, over decades, for responding to today’s challenge, suggesting China has a capacity for pacing itself that has been lost in many nations. “First you start your pagoda with a pile of earth. You then translate your blueprint into reality by your actions. Efforts should avoid “flights of fantasy or a rush into abstractions. Rather every step and every gesture should be firm as assured as one carries out one’s good effort.”
We begin a “pagoda with a pile of earth.” But in order to translate the blueprint into reality, we must work steadily and in a down-to-earth manner.
I am not living in China and I am not an eye witness to the achievements described in the talk. But I can say with certainty that the speech suggested a leader who is using his talk as an opportunity to address his people as equal, not to make an appeal to increase his own influence, or fame. The possibility of a leader addressing citizens with humility and assuming that they are capable of reason, and not merely responding to animal emotions, suggested that our brittle little Earth still has some hope.