This 'Beijing Consensus' Thingamajig (Again)

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 2/08/2010 01:01:00 AM
One of the very first posts on this blog concerned the existence of a "Beijing Consensus." Having established a reasonably deep back catalogue of material while blogging here for three years, I have noticed that I get a heckuva lot of visits to older posts when these topics become salient again. After a recent surge of visits to that post, I eventually traced some of the activity to a feature in Foreign Affairs that currently tops the most read articles list. There, Peking University (PKU) Professor Yang Yao explains how the authoritarian model of development in China is nearing the end of the line. In the interest of fairness, I must disclose that LSE IDEAS runs programmes in conjunction with the PKU. All the same, I am guarded with the overall message of the article.

In my February 2007 post, I was generally negative about the original concept expressed by Joshua Cooper Ramo and, by goodness, my view hasn't changed. He claimed that the Beijing Consensus involved (1) innovation and constant experimentation; (2) rejection of GDP growth above all in favor of sustainability and equality; and (3) self-determination. All except the third claim are doubtful for obvious reasons: China is still more derivative of the West than inventive; China is now the world's worst carbon emitter; and while some suggest inequality in China is levelling off, it is still at a very high level. If anything else, it seems China is hellbent on GDP growth even if it means annoying every imaginable trade partner and undermining climate change negotiations.

That said, my first problem here is that Yang Yao does not explain why Joseph Cooper Ramo's imagined Beijing Consensus is nearing an end. Rather, he makes his own conception of a 'Beijing Consensus' that problematizes this preference for authoritarian growth causing inequality and any number of social disturbances. Moreover, he does not see how China can make adjustments to accommodate these concerns from inside an authoritarian framework. Instead, he seems to veer off into (neoconservative) "end of history" or (neoliberal) "there is no alternative" style reasoning:
Popular resistance and economic imbalances are now moving China toward another major crisis. Strong and privileged interest groups and commercialized local governments are blocking equal distribution of the benefits of economic growth throughout society, thereby rendering futile the CCP's strategy of trading economic growth for people's consent to its absolute rule.

An open and inclusive political process has generally checked the power of interest groups in advanced democracies such as the United States. Indeed, this is precisely the mandate of a disinterested government -- to balance the demands of different social groups. A more open Chinese government could still remain disinterested if the right democratic institutions were put in place to keep the most powerful groups at bay. But ultimately, there is no alternative to greater democratization if the CCP wishes to encourage economic growth and maintain social stability.
Needless to say, I doubt whether this is likely to happen. I'll have more in a short while on a book that, to my mind, is better at suggesting where the PRC may be headed despite veering too much in the opposite direction to Yang Yao.