By Jhana Gottlieb
Over the past 40 years, Beijing’s domestic policies have successfully transformed China from an impoverished nation into a world superpower; yet, they did so without a basic tenant of Western development theory—democracy.1 In 2004, China’s startling growth led Joshua Ramo to coin the term “Beijing Consensus.”2 This moniker nods to the “Washington Consensus,” the set of political and economic development prescriptions issued by Washington technocrats to Latin American countries in the late 1980s in an attempt to spur regional development. To some Western academics and politicians, the Beijing Consensus poses a threat to the United States’ soft power, particularly within developing nations. Yet to what extent does the Beijing Consensus truly represent an international ideological danger? Contrary to the beliefs of Western alarmists, the Beijing Consensus’ power derives mostly from its definition as an alternative to Western neoliberalism, not from any ideological strength of its own. In emphasizing the dichotomy between the Washington and Beijing Consensuses, Western observers thereby only further extend China’s ideational power.
The overarching argument for China’s ideological threat contends that China’s successful growth has provided an attractive alternative development model founded on authoritarianism, which lacks fundamental Western values such as universal human rights or democratic institutions. This model, when combined with China’s increasing political and economic expansion into developing regions, is slowly replacing the West’s soft power across vast territories, particularly Africa and Latin America. In his book, The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in our Time, Stefan Halper argues that the “net effect of these developments is to reduce Western and particularly American influence on the global stage—along both economic and ideational axes.”3 Furthermore, this threat supersedes all others, for it “will have a vastly greater impact than will the tactical military and economic ‘China threats’ concerning Washington today.”4 Essentially, the U.S.’s grip on global soft power dynamics is weakening as a result of an ongoing battle between dominant ideologies.
While initially compelling, Halper’s argument ultimately falls short in its most basic assumption—that China and the U.S. truly represent two intrinsically antithetical ideologies. Since its initial release in the 1980s, the “Washington Consensus” has come to more generally to represent a cohesive development model in which democratic institutions and neoliberal economics mutually reinforce each other. It rests upon a strong ideological foundation dating back to Adam Smith’s political economy model in the Wealth of Nations. The Beijing Consensus lacks a comparable historical foundation and cohesive political economic definition. It is often referred to as state capitalism, implying some sort of state-controlled economic liberalization; beyond this general understanding, its specifics remain rather vague. In fact, its defining tenant lies within this ambiguity. Shaun Breslin, a leading expert on China’s political economy, explains that “not being identified as the promoter of any specific normative position is in itself a normative position.”5 Rather than representing a concrete political economic model, the Beijing Consensus “is simply concerned with doing what works in the long term, and is not driven by any plan.”6 Therefore, in comparing the two, the Washington Consensus is the specific combination of democratic institutions and free market economics, while the Beijing Consensus seems to be most any other combination of political and economic factors that foster development.
In reality, upon closer analysis of China’s path to economic growth, it is startlingly similar to Western neoliberalism. Scott Kennedy finds that China actually followed eight of the ten mandates of the Washington Consensus during its Opening and Reform period.7 Economically, the two are quite similar; it is only upon including political ideology that they truly diverge. While the Washington Consensus is firmly based in democracy, Breslin argues that, “for most observers, it is this experimentation and non-ideological commitment to doing whatever it takes to promote growth while maintaining political stability that is the defining hallmark of the Chinese mode of governance.”8 Therefore, the Beijing Consensus is not its own political economic system. Rather, it is a model of political stability and economic growth by some combination other than the Washington Consensus’ unique pairing of democracy and free market capitalism. Thus, the Beijing Consensus derives its strength by being defined as everything outside the Washington Consensus, not its own ideational foundation.
However this definition is the very reason that the Beijing Consensus does not necessarily need a strong ideational basis. “The China model isn’t important for others because of the specifics of what has happened in China; rather, it is important for establishing what can be done if other countries do what is best for themselves based on their own concrete circumstances and not simply what they are told to do by others.”9 Not telling others what to do is highly antithetical to the Washington Consensus, which was forcibly imposed upon Latin American countries. The Beijing Consensus’ ideational power therefore lies in its respect for autonomy and individualized growth, a power that is enabled by its continual comparison to the Washington Consensus.
Definition by comparison further strengthens the Beijing Consensus in light of the 2008 economic crash. “Before the 2008 financial crisis, the Beijing Consensus was an interesting idea that animated discussions at academic seminars and conferences, mostly in Western countries. This is no longer the case.”10 Free market failure naturally strengthened the ideational weight of all other models, including the Beijing Consensus.
Ironically, the Beijing Consensus now represents a form of Chinese soft power, but was originally propagated by Western theorists. Breslin argues that the Beijing Consensus is a, “speech act—talking of it, and defining it in a specific way, makes it real and gives it real power.”11 Therefore, Western insistence on this dichotomy is not only the source of the Beijing Consensus’ ideational strength, but also leads to the expansion of its power.
In reality, China’s development shares many similarities with the Western model. It is only through Western theorists highlighting the differences and compiling them into an intellectual concept that China has developed as an ideological competitor. Continual emphasis on these differences is the source of its strength, as the Beijing Consensus has no ideology of its own upon which to rest. If the West wishes to limit China’s ideational power, it must cease propagating an ideological dichotomy and instead emphasize the similarities China shares with the West. As of now, the Beijing Consensus is an ideational threat of our own creation, and will be so as long as we continue to define it by what it is not.
Jhana Gottlieb is a senior IPE major at Colorado College. She is passionate about conflict resolution, and plans to pursue international mediation post-graduation. On campus, Jhana is a member of the John Quincy Adams society on American foreign policy, a peer tutor at the CC writing center, and a student assistant in the Political Science Department. In her free time, she loves to travel and ballroom dance, as well as explore Colorado’s exquisite natural world through backpacking, skiing, and rock climbing.
Breslin, Shaun. “The ‘China model’ and the global crisis: from Friedrich List to a Chinese mode of governance?” The Royal Institute of International Affairs 87:6 (2011): 1323-1343. Accessed March 3, 2016.
Halper, Stefan. The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in our Time. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
Huang, Yasheng. “Rethinking the Beijing Consensus.” Asia Policy 11 (2011): 1-26. Accessed March 2, 2016.
Kennedy, Scott. “The Myth of the Beijing Consensus.” Journal of Contemporary China 19.65 (2010): 461-477. Accessed March 3, 2016.
1. This paper was adapted from an earlier written assignment, composed for the class “Topics in Politics: China and World,” taken in March 2016.
2. Scott Kennedy, “The Myth of the Beijing Consensus,” Journal of Contemporary China 19.65 (2010): 462, accessed March 3, 2016.
3. Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus: Legitimizing Authoritarianism in our Time (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 3.
5. Shaun Breslin, “The ‘China model’ and the global crisis: from Friedrich List to a Chinese mode of governance?” The Royal Institute of International Affairs 87:6 (2011): 1338, accessed March 3, 2016.
6. Ibid., 1382.
7. Kennedy, “The Myth of the Beijing Consensus,” 470.
8. Breslin, “The ‘China model’ and the global crisis,” 1328.
9. Ibid., 1338.
10. Yasheng Huang, “Rethinking the Beijing Consensus,” Asia Policy 11 (2011): 4, accessed March 2, 2016.
11. Breslin, “The ‘China model’ and the global crisis,” 1324.
Featured Image: A paramilitary police officer in plain-clothes holding an umbrella keeps watch on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, August 27, 2015. (Reuters/Jason Lee)