IIE's Williamson: There Is No 'Beijing Consensus'

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 11/25/2010 12:02:00 AM
Whether he's found the attention for doing so welcome or not, John Williamson should be familiar to all concerned as the fellow who coined the "Washington Consensus." Although he takes issue with those who identify it with the most extreme forms of liberalization, deregulation, and privatization instead of moderation he says he championed, the label has stuck for better or worse as consonant with neoliberal thought.

Likewise, the "Beijing Consensus" is widely misunderstood. As Williamson correctly notes, no Chinese authors have claimed the term for themselves. Rather, it was an American journalist, Joshua Cooper Ramo, who came up with the term and its original, factually challenged description of what was happening in Chinese policy circles aside from the bit on experimentation and gradualism. Since then, it's taken the form of whatever Westerners believe is going on in China--authoritarianism and a state-led political economy most of all. As you would expect, Williamson takes as dim a view of what others consider the Beijing Consensus as of what they have made of the Washington Consensus. Recently, he had this to say in a recent interview:
John Williamson: Yes. Let me make it clear that I don’t think that the Washington Consensus was advanced as a set of ideal propositions about the ways to develop. It was what I sensed in 1989 as a consensus around town about the type of policies that need to be followed in Latin American countries as of that particular date. That’s not to say that it’s comprehensive or neutral. There certainly are other things that I would want to include about the right ways to develop, and some of the things that have been attributed to Washington Consensus I regard as simply erroneous, but that’s another question.

Steve Weisman: What do you think of the idea of a Beijing Consensus? What would be its main principles?

John Williamson: The interesting thing is that most people who are simply talking about it seem to be non-Chinese. They are very much foreigners and intruding on the Chinese debate, and they’ve tried to suggest that there is this consensus, which many in developing countries are looking to now as the right way to develop [my emphasis]. In a lecture [that] I delivered in Birmingham, I tend to take a somewhat cynical view about that. I argued first of all that there’s not a lot of content in the concept of the Beijing Consensus beyond saying, “This is what the Chinese do.” There’s no list of propositions [comparable] to those [that] I suggest constituted the Washington Consensus. Instead it’s what China does, and I’ve identified four things.

First of all, I said that China was certainly committed to feeling the stones across the river instead of doing things in one big leap. By that, they mean that they adopt an experimental approach to things and see what works and try things one at a time, rather than committing everything on one absolute theory. That seems to me a sensible enough approach if one’s in a position to do it.

Secondly, I think that it’s a very experimental approach [that] they are committed to. I think also one can argue [it is] a good thing although it can be taken too far. I do argue in this paper that there were times when one shouldn’t forget that they’re still a developing country and it really probably isn’t a good use of resources to be always reinventing the wheel rather than to accept that other people have already invented the wheel, and therefore, to devote resources to exploiting these innovations.

The third thing is that they still have many state firms and that they clearly are floating within a capitalist framework. Let’s just say they regard prices as the essential mechanism by which they allocate resources, but they have many state firms and they haven’t completely embraced the advice to privatize everything. Now, one is faced with asking the question: Should that be regarded as a great plus for China? It is regarded in many outside countries, I think, as a big plus for them. But it may be that the Chinese themselves feel that they, in fact, got more [from] liberalizing the economy since they got out of the fact that the process of liberalization is not yet complete. And maybe one needs a more balanced perspective than the tendency in the literature to espouse.

I think the fourth element of Chinese policy is continuing fascination with authoritarianism. I mean, one can’t say that China is a great example of democracy. True that [Premier] Wen Jiabao has been giving speeches recently in which he espouses this principle. But China has not been noted for its attempt to espouse democracy in its relations with other countries. Instead it’s accepted that countries are entitled to do as they please. It’s really pushing the doctrine of national sovereignty very hard indeed, and one may have reservations about that. So, on the whole, I don’t think that this Beijing Consensus, at best I’ve been able to formulate it, is the right way to go.
And of course there's now the Seoul Consensus [1, 2] to deal with that would be more factual by Williamson's definition insofar as South Korea actually came up with it as the current G-20 chair. The Beijing Consensus is so 2004, dahling.