The Beijing Consensus, By Stefan Halper
A Zambian Economist Review
A week never passes without hearing something about China’s rising dominance. The eastern dragon is beginning to dominate international economic and political relations, and with that exposure comes greater global scrutiny. Everyone has an opinion about China’s place in the world. Is China colonising Africa? Will it initiate global disorder, like empires before it? Will the dragon implode and vanish causing wider global insecurity? These questions reflect not only the fear of change but also points to the fact that the rest of the world does not really understand China nor are we able to come up with the definitive answers about its future. Faced with such a vacuous knowledge the narrative about China’s place has largely been scripted by ignorant and an impatient media with little time to study the difficult questions. This has produced a rather unhelpful black and white juxtaposition. You either for China’s rise or against it.
Stefan Halper’s The Beijing Consensus marks a refreshing departure by seeking to provide a more nuanced assessment of Beijing’s challenge to the global order. Written largely from an American perspective, the central thesis of the book is that although China’s emergence on the international stage does pose a serious danger to global order, this is not primarily military. Rather it is a “threat of ideas about how prosperity is attained and the society we want to live in”. China is championing a market authoritarianism which it is now exporting across the globe. The Chinese model promises rapid growth, stability and a pursuit of better life for poor countries. Absent from this model are the things many in the west believe provide a foundation for a well ordered society e.g. free speech, freedom of worship, open government and royal political opposition. Such a model, Halper argues, is proving attractive to dictators and partial democracies as they flock to Beijing to learn how they can stay in power in exchange for economic growth. They are literally learning how to exchange growth for a rod of iron.
This development poses a strategic challenge to the West, particularly the USA. It diminishes American global leadership and undermines “western values”. As more poor and “middle regional sized powers” embrace relations with China, it is increasingly making the West irrelevant in world affairs. In Halper’s words “China is shrinking the West and its values”. The process has been accelerated in recent years by the global financial crisis which pushed the world to look towards Beijing. China emerged from the crisis in both substance and tone as the new leader of the global order and that role will become more pronounced in decades to come. The question for western democracies is whether Beijing can be considered a “responsible stakeholder”, while its policies continue to enable “systematic repression among its impoverished partners”.
If the West is able to confront this challenge, it must first appreciate the nature of the threat and recognise that democratisation of Beijing is not inevitable. To understand China we need to focus on the incentives that are driving its leaders. Halper’s analysis therefore adopts “a self interest” approach which helpfully allows us to reach much clearer and logical conclusions. A key observation is that China is not deliberately setting out to diminish the power of the West or its values. It is assuming global economic and political dominance only in response to the incentives facing its leadership as they seek to pacify the masses. The radical pressure from home has forced China's leadership to focus squarely on growth and sacrifice all else on its altar. Unfortunately (or fortunately) the globalisation of information has also made Beijing vulnerable to international pressure (especially from NGOs). This competing tension between domestic and international pressures has led to the emergence of “two Chinas” which co-exist in the international system, a “good neighbour and the rogue state”. But far from giving the West greater room for pressure, the duality in China’s global presence limits the extent to which the democratic West can steer Beijing to a more positive course. China will continue to rely and aid the global governance structures for its benefit while it simultaneously subverts them for the sake of internal advantages. Beijing will continue to export its market authoritarian model as long it keeps the leaders in power.
Taken together The Beijing Consensus central arguments are difficult to challenge. There’s growing evidence throughout sub-Saharan Africa that Beijing’s influence is growing. China nowadays produces everything from shoes to space crafts. It exports all things from cars to people. In the last few weeks reports have continued to circulate of Beijing’s objection to the UN release of the Darfur report – a position reflecting some of China’s less careful dealings in the Sudan. Similarly, earlier this week we saw China’s global reach as one of its mining firms in Zambia found itself at a centre of another worker ill treatment saga, after firing gunshots at its employees. What was interesting is that a day later Zambia’s Vice President was in Beijing praising the Chinese government and saying absolutely nothing about the incident. The Republican President was about to mumble some concern only to tell his own citizens to keep quiet about such things. Fear of antagonising China looms large among African leaders.
However, the central issue remains whether Beijing really has begun to export its model or whether that is simply a fear that is yet to be realised. It is not clear from the evidence in the book whether Beijing’s influence is leading to the replacement of genuine democratic ideas and practice with illiberal democracy in developing nations or whether it is merely preventing the emergence of more democratic states. This distinction is vital and goes to the heart of what the West is purported to have already achieved globally and consequently what Beijing can legitimately be accused of threatening to supplant. The lack of clarity and clear evidence on this matter is a major weakness of Halper's narrative. The question of whether China has made things worse for the Africa is undoubtedly a complex question, but one which is very important. It requires a proper grasp of the “counterfactual” i.e. the world without Beijing. There’s need for a deeper country by country assessment of how China has affected day to day outcomes relative to that counterfactual.
Taking Zambia as an example, it is not obvious that we would necessarily be better in terms of democratic outcomes without Chinese influence. Beyond the perverse economic plunder of mineral resources (which is primarily western led), it is difficult to argue that in terms of governance, the 1991 – 2001 period under IMF / World Bank overlord were necessarily better than 2002 – 2010 period under increasingly Chinese control of Zambian interests. Indeed The Beijing Consensus does acknowledge the flaws and inevitable downfall of the American led "Washington Consensus". It therefore begs the question what these "western values" and practices being eroded are. Is it merely American dominance, for better or for worse? For many poor nations there’s little difference between a Beijing dominated world and an American one. Similarly, if we looked at the Zambian government’s policy it is unclear what the Lusaka government is learning from Beijing. The Beijing model is direct state led involvement in key strategic sectors and stricter requirements on foreign investments (e.g. in the car industry). That is hardly Zambia’s approach. Indeed when one extrapolates across other developing nations (e.g. Malawi, DR Congo and Angola) a similar picture emerges. Many of these countries are more liberal than Beijing, and where they are intolerant of democracy, it is because they have always been intolerant – not because Beijing has introduced it.
Globally, one would imagine that the counterfactual would see increasing dominance of America ideas. That raises the question of whether such a model is necessarily better than a duopolistic arrangement at the top, or indeed outright Beijing dominance. Although the USA maintained global stability for half a century, in recent years its activities has kept much of the world poor, some would say deliberately to maintain its dominance. It has done this politically, militarily and often through violent means e.g. the chaos during Zaire’s genesis. Its economic policies were disastrous for much of Africa as the IMF and World Bank put the clock back on the continent and set it on a destructive path of perpetual decline. There are many African countries that welcome competition among the “great powers” to allow the best ideas and international governance frameworks to emerge.
Equally surprisingly is Halper’s somewhat narrow assessment of Beijing’s military dominance. It is certainly the case that Beijing poses no direct military threat to the West but it does appear to be directly challenging western military influence in Africa. After the USA sought to establish Africom a number of nations roundly rejected those advances after pressure from Beijing. A recent academic study noted that China's military-to-military activities in Africa, including defense attache presence, naval ship visits, arms sales and other missions to support military cooperation are expanding to keep pace with China's growing national interests throughout the region. It is well established that the relationship between economic help and military intervention is inseparable. It is illogical to expect nations that invest billions in other nations, not to back up that investment with some guarantee of security. China growing global integration is bound to be accompanied by greater military intervention as it seeks to secure global supply. This is the most worrying aspect of China's reach in developing nations and one slightly underplayed by Halper.
Despite these weaknesses, The Beijing Consensus presents a fine assessment of the Chinese question. It provides a clear analytical approach that focuses on the structural incentives driving Bejing and consequently allows readers to begin considering more clearly what a Beijing dominated world may look like. An exhilarating read and well worth the time! Most recommended.