It is not just that seeking to placate the public at home with braggadocio overseas will make it harder still for China to garner allies and respect. There is a deeper problem. Many countries around the world admire, and would like to emulate, the undemocratic but effective way that China has managed its decades of growth. If China’s domestic politics look less stable, some of that admiration will wane. And even if things can be held together, for the time being, admiration for China does not translate into affection for it, or into a sense of common cause. Economically and militarily, China has come a long way towards regaining the centrality in Asia it enjoyed through much of history. Intellectually and morally, it has not. In the old days it held a “soft power” so strong, according to William Kirby of Harvard University, that “neighbours converted themselves” to it. Now, Mr Xi may know how to assert himself and how to be feared, at home and abroad. But without the ability to exert a greater power of attraction, too, such strength will always tend to destabilise.
If surpluses are used in charity, or in cooperatives for human purposes such as home-building for the less affluent, life necessarily becomes simpler and the ideal of voluntary poverty cannot be far behind. The Christian doctrine of property becomes a reality, namely the retaining of a sufficiency of goods for an adequate life and the sharing of the remainder with the needy. In point of fact, millions of Christians, working for wages, actually live out this teaching on property. How else do we explain the world-wide network of the works of mercy supported by the small gifts of the many, Though there are Catholic millionaires, the masses of Catholics are rather the victims than the beneficiaries of corporations as they roam about the world seeking profits.