The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-First Century, by Stefan Halper (Basic Books, 312 pp., $28.95)

Stefan Halper’s new book argues that the democratic, free-market model championed by the United States—sometimes known as the Washington consensus—is being replaced by a “Beijing consensus,” a combination of capitalism and dictatorship promoted by China. If he’s right, then America is losing the battle of ideas. Fortunately, he isn’t. The problem with Halper’s argument that a consensus has developed around the Chinese model is that there is no consensus and no real model.

Like most sensible China watchers, Halper isn’t worried about America’s trade imbalance with China or China’s massive purchases of Treasury bills. Through trade, Halper argues, both countries benefit. The same goes for China’s being America’s main lender: so long as China keeps buying T-bills, the U.S. can finance its deficit without reducing its standard of living, and China can keep American customers happy (since if it decided to sell the bills, the dollar would depreciate and reduce the comparative advantage of Chinese goods). As for military rivalry, Halper is right to remind readers that China’s army, even with an increasing budget, is no match for America’s. His only mistake here is failing to acknowledge the risk that the next Communist generation in Beijing might not follow the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping line. The nature of a Communist dictatorship makes it impossible to rule out the return of a revolutionary agenda, and if China were to become less rational down the road, the U.S. would be well advised to decrease its dependence on Chinese savings, shrink its reliance on cheap Chinese goods, and keep a close eye on China’s army.

It may seem odd for Halper to minimize the Chinese economic and military challenges at the same time that he argues for Beijing’s primacy on the world stage, but doing so supports his broader thesis: that China is conquering the world through ideology. According to him, the Beijing consensus—capitalism-cum-authoritarianism—is the most attractive formula in the developing world. He wants us to believe that Arabs and Africans love it, seeing the Chinese model as a shortcut out of poverty that also offers political stability. Further, he says, the Chinese are ready to invest in countries that adopt this model. “The Beijing consensus makes the West less relevant in world affairs,” writes Halper. “In effect, China is shrinking the West.”

But how can we accept Halper’s thesis when China’s export-focused, globalized state capitalism has never been debated among the public, only imposed from on high? A significant proportion of the Chinese population doesn’t profit economically from state-imposed capitalism and trade. Rebellions against the regime increase by the day. One should be skeptical about the popularity of a “Beijing consensus” among the hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants, displaced people, and migrant workers who resent their exploitation under state capitalism. “Consensus” doesn’t describe what’s currently happening in the country at all.

Halper is on even shakier ground when he claims that the Chinese model can be exported to replace the American combination of free markets and democracy. Huge nations have joined the Washington consensus over the last 20 years, and India, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Korea aren’t about to reject democracy or their vibrant small-business sectors. China may achieve a slightly higher growth rate than Brazil and India, but in the long run, the democratic countries will probably prove more stable. No one talks about a “New Delhi consensus” or a “Seoul consensus,” but these are much closer to being real than anything coming out of Beijing. These countries chose democracy and free markets after years of debate, and the results speak for themselves. Brazil, India, and South Korea have entered a new era of sustained development, with better income distribution than China—not to mention the intangible goods of political, academic, and religious liberty, none of which are found in China.

To whom does the Chinese leadership peddle its Beijing consensus? Halper cites Egypt, Iran, Burma, and the nations of the West African coast. These countries’ dictators may find some solace in the Chinese model. It remains to be seen whether their people will share their enthusiasm. Halper’s notion of a Chinese model for other countries is culturally problematic as well. The Beijing consensus is clearly the outcome of a specifically Chinese history, a unique blend of Marxist statism and the Confucian notion of an enlightened bureaucracy. Whether such a model has any chance of taking root outside China is doubtful.

Western scholars, entranced with Confucianism and dissatisfied with the way their own countries are run, have long advocated the Chinese authoritarian model as a way of criticizing their own governments. In the eighteenth century, Voltaire and Leibniz used China’s supposed “philosopher-king” model to attack corrupt French and Prussian monarchs. In the 1960s, some intellectuals became Maoists while dreaming of a revolution at home. Halper, alas, belongs in this tradition. True, he doesn’t celebrate the Chinese dominance he predicts, instead recommending (weakly) that America answer the challenge by deploying more diplomatic “soft power,” exporting free-market democratic ideas, and better educating our workforce. But he does give the Chinese model far more credit than it deserves.


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