The calculus of quitting also changes what it means to have a good division of labour at work. If your goal is to get a job somewhere else, not all work projects are equally valuable. Workers must jockey for the tasks and projects that might lead to a job elsewhere. They must try to avoid tasks that, either due to intellectual property issues or for other reasons, are too company-specific. Linus Huang, a sociologist at Berkeley, saw this happening in the Silicon Valley startup where he was working when Java was first becoming a popular programming language. There was quite a bit of work in his company involving the general-purpose programming language, C++ , and for many of the company’s needs, it was sufficient. Employees wanted to have practice with Java, however, because Java would make them more marketable in the future. Workers began to evaluate projects in terms of whether they would improve their Java skills. The managers began to struggle to find people who would do the day-to-day programming work, mostly in C++, upon which the company depended. They had no trouble, on the other hand, finding people to work on the few Java projects. When you work a job that presumes you will quit before too long, the tasks that are good for the company might not be good for you.
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.