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Should Autocratic Politics Replace Democracy? On the Idea of Replacing the Washington Consensus with Beijing Consensus

After the Xinhua website reprinted the article “China in the Eyes of the World in 2004: The whole world suddenly wants to learn Chinese” published by Jingbao [1] on December 31, 2004, the Chinese version of the book Beijing Consensus is about to be published in China. The hot topic, “Beijing Consensus will replace Washington Consensus,” was widely circulated back in May of 2004, and is once again being brought to the Chinese public’s attention.

According to the official interpretation by the Chinese government, the Beijing Consensus covers, in addition to economic ideas, many other topics such as politics, quality of life, and the balance of power in the world. Taken as a whole, the theme of “Beijing Consensus will replace the Washington Consensus” is one political value system replacing another.

In general, this type of opinion cannot be published by Chinese state-run media, especially Xinhua, without fitting neatly within the Chinese Communist Party line. In China’s tightly controlled press, if Beijing did not approve, it would be impossible for Jingbao, a state-owned media publication, to bring something like the Beijing Consensus into the public eye. The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to suppress different voices in China and the world, and to filter out any criticisms by labeling them as “anti-China forces.” The quoting of a non-Chinese source like this is to be considered a part of the propaganda strategy, an attempt at painting a glorified picture of China under the reign of the Chinese communist regime.

It is therefore worthwhile to understand Beijing’s version of the Beijing Consensus and its implications.

Authoritative “World Voices” Favor the Beijing Consensus

The Jingbao article used the term “world voices” as the source of glorious praise for China. What the article termed “world voices” consisted of words taken out of context from the Far Eastern Economic Review, Forbes, and other sources. In this praise, China is the most influential political giant in the world, a rising star in science and technology, a great nation with an image of peace, and a country whose citizens have become, with their pockets ever deepening, the most powerful consumers in the world. In short, the torrent of China influence is irresistible.

The Jingbao article stated that, between May and June of last year, the Foreign Policy Center in London published an article entitled “The Beijing Consensus,” authored by Joshua Cooper Ramo. “China’s Growth Model,” as put forth by Ramo, is not only “suitable for China’s domestic and social situation,” but also “a way of seeking fair and high-quality growth [in general].” The Jingbao article did not mention the fact that Ramo is a senior advisor at Goldman Sachs on political and economic issues, as well as a professor at Tsinghua University in China. Instead, it listed Ramo as a part of a think tank at the Foreign Policy Center in London. It seems that the other two roles that Ramo plays were left out to lend more credibility to his words and forestall impressions of bias.

Beijing’s Version of the Beijing Consensus

According to an official explanation by the Chinese authorities in the Jingbao article, the Washington Consensus of the 1990s focused on privatization, liberalization, and transparent economic development. According to the Chinese authorities’ analysis, the Washington Consensus led to corruption and management failures in Argentina, as well as damage to a dozen economies over the past decade. The Beijing Consensus, on the other hand, does not stop at providing an economic model for developing nations. It also addresses issues such as politics, quality of life, and the balance of power in the world. Beijing further points out that the Beijing Consensus has replaced the widely unpopular and distrusted Washington Consensusequality, peace, and high-quality economic growth have replaced arrogance and constant criticism of others’ problems.

Beijing’s interpretation is a reflection and continuation of its anti-American stance, more concerned with discrediting American policy than promoting its own. Ultimately, the core message is that its ideology will win out in the long run and replace American doctrines.

As discussed in later sections, “fair and high-quality growth” is not the actual Chinese model of growth, but rather the picture that the Jingbao article has painted for China. Privatization, liberalization, and transparency have not led to serious problems in the United States. While they did create problems in Argentina, one cannot simply conclude that the problem was American business values. It only demonstrates that under the constraints of their domestic political culture, certain countries have problems digesting American-style democracy. Beijing claims superiority for the Beijing Consensus, but the praise heaped upon China is based on its effort in moving towards privatization and liberalization. On the other hand, the lack of transparency in China’s politics and economy is widely criticized. For example, the serious corruption in China can be attributed to the lack of checks and balances on China’s political stage, as well as the lack of transparency in its management operations.

Why Stress that the Beijing Consensus Will Replace the Washington Consensus?

The Beijing Consensus is not based on reality in China, but rather idealistic concepts that the author created in response to the Washington Consensus. So why is the Chinese government stressing that the Beijing Consensus will replace the Washington Consensus?

In the eyes of the Chinese government, the Beijing Consensus is a value system centered around the combination of autocratic politics and a market economy. The Washington Consensus is, on the other hand, a combination of democracy and a market economy, as represented by the U.S. political and economic system.

In today’s China, the basis for autocratic politics is a mixture of the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and a nationalist mentality. It fundamentally emphasizes the legitimacy of dictatorship politics. Beijing’s claim is actually based on autocratic politics and a “semi-market economy,” characterized by the privatization of governmental power and corruption to replace democracy and a free market.

As the Chinese public learns about the world via Communist propaganda, the longstanding slogan “there’s no new China if there’s no Chinese Communist Party” is being reinforced. After all, if the whole world thinks the Beijing Consensus is going to replace the Washington Consensus, why should they think differently?

Fair Growth in Economics and Education?

The social and economic policies of a country include the distribution of wealth, education, retirement pensions, medical care, housing policies and other social benefits. These policies are a reflection of social fairness and provide insight into whether the growth of a society is equitable or not.

The severe disparity in China’s wealth distribution has long been a widely recognized problem. The difference in opinion is that the small elite group believes that the unbalanced distribution of wealth is justified, while the socially vulnerable group, which comprises the vast majority of people in China, regards the situation as an injustice that must be corrected. The Jingbao article does not acknowledge this fact and contends that China’s economic development is growth with fairness.

As I pointed out a decade ago, China’s economic reform is the process of “using force to create markets.” Such a process moves forward in two steps: first it legalizes the “second economy” that used to exist in the form of a black (underground) market; and then it has those forces retreat from some industries to leave room for the market forces to play a role. During the process, while the state-controlled monopoly is weakened, it continues to control the majority of the political and economic resources. Government officials end up with the majority of control over the redistributed power.

The growth of private businesses relies heavily on their relationship with government officials. The best strategy is to do business with the government in order to profit from both private and state-owned economies. It is much easier to make a profit from a business that is under the government’s protective umbrella. It is no exaggeration that in today’s China, “government officials are the ones who create kings.” In the symbiotic relationship between business people and government officials, wealth becomes the paramount goal. The end result is that while a few wealthy people are indeed created, a geometric proportion of the poor are created correspondingly.

As of now, 15% of China’s rich possess 85% of the total wealth; the gap between rich and poor is getting wider. According to official publications, the Gini Coefficient is 0.458, exceeding the internationally recognized level of alarm. The social tension caused by this huge gap is a powder keg. According to research conducted by Nankai University in China, when taking into account the untracked income of government officials, China’s Gini Coefficient reached 0.517 as far back as 1995. Accounts of China’s government officials fleeing the country with millions of dollars have become commonplace.

Despite the claim by the Chinese government that China’s GDP has steadily risen over the past few years, retirement pension payouts and medical benefits have been severely lacking. According to official data, nearly 77% of the workers and almost 95% of retirees participated in various social insurance programs in June of 1996. Nevertheless, the social benefit system in China exists in name only, with many “personal benefit accounts” carrying virtually no fundsa situation that experts refer to as an “empty account” or an account without funds for public use. The number of “empty accounts” is increasing every year, with the amount of shortfall reaching 14 billion yuan (US$1.7 billion) in 1997, 45 billion yuan (US$5.4 billion) in 1998, 100 billion yuan (US$12 billion) in 1999, and as of November 2004, 600 billion (US$72.3 billion) in retirement insurance shortfalls.

The educational well-being of every country includes both the quality and availability of education. For many years, China’s public education system has been severely under-funded, ranking as the lowest in the world, at less than 3% of its GDP. This number is only one-third of the amount recommended by the United Nations. Moreover, the government provides only 53% of the total educational funding, while the remaining 47% comes from students’ parents or other venues. The policy of commercializing education in recent years is a huge economic drain and travesty for the average citizen and is widely criticized in China. According to reports from the official media, there are currently 27 million children in China who cannot afford to go to school. This number accounts for 10% of the total number of school-age children in China. Some researchers have indicated that this number could be as high as 50 million if the survey includes children of migrant workers in metropolitan areas and those of “illegal” second children.

High-quality Growth?

There are at least two criteria for judging whether or not a nation’s economy demonstrates high-quality growth, including the capacity for innovation in science and technology, environmental and ecological protection, the product value to energy consumption ratio, as well as safe manufacturing conditions. China is found lacking in all of the above areas.

In terms of capacity for innovation in science and technology, China’s relationship with foreign investments has been centering on the use of China’s vast markets in exchange for technology. Experts believe that China has traded its market to foreign investment without substantially upgrading its technology. Meanwhile, numerous foreign companies have filed lawsuits against Chinese companies for breach of intellectual property laws. Developing its high-tech industries by emulating or breaching the intellectual property of other countries is a worrisome sign for China’s capacity of innovation.

China’s record is appalling in the area of environmental and ecological protection. Gross domestic product alone does not reflect the consumption of natural resources and the subsequent damage to the environment. The continued growth in China’s GDP over the past 25 years has caused tremendous environmental damage. Eight of the ten most polluted cities in the world are in China. Seventy percent of the metropolitan rivers are polluted, and many cities routinely lack drinking-quality water. Thirty-eight percent of China’s land mass has become desert, while the overall desert coverage continues to expand both eastward and westward at the rate of 2,600 square kilometers per year. What is the environmental cost that China is paying for its economic development? According to Qu Geping, the Director of the National Environment Protection Bureau of China, as of the mid-90s, the annual loss due to environmental and ecological damage totaled 8% of the GDP.

China has the highest ratio of energy consumption to gross output value. As disclosed by official information, the per-capita energy consumption is only half of the world average, while the energy consumption to gross output ratio is twice as high as the world average.

China’s work safety record is one of the worst in the world, and no industry illustrates this better than coal mining. Wang Xianzhen, the Director of the State Administration of Work Safety, disclosed numbers for coal mining accidents in November. In 2003, the world’s coal output totaled about five billion metric tons. A total of 8,000 people died in coal production-related accidents worldwide. With 35% of the world coal output, China accounted for 80% of the total deaths in coal mining around the world. On the other hand, the average miner in China produced an average of 321 metric tons of coal in 2003, which is equivalent to a little more than 2% of a U.S. miner’s productivity, and a little more than 8% of a South African miner’s productivity. China’s death rate, however, was 100 times that of the United States or 30 times that of South Africa. In addition, the coal miners’ working conditions are very poor, with 600,000 officially recognized coal miners suffering from lung illnesses. The coal mining industry in China sees an additional 70,000 patients every year.

End Notes

The Chinese communist regime praises the Beijing Consensus to emphasize the legitimacy of dictatorship politics, therefore justifying its reign in China. What most Chinese people need is not the “world voices” glorifying China and indirectly affirming the Chinese communist regime, but those same voices pushing for precisely what the Beijing Consensus and its ideology want to take away: the people’s right to live and to know.


1. Jingbao is a part of the Beijing Youth Newspaper syhstem, which is one of the prominent state-owned media in Beijing.