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Book review: The Beijing Consensus

February 20, 2012

Last week’s New York Times carried a rather chilling op-ed, entitled Why China’s Political Model is Superior, by Eric X. Li.  Mr. Li is the chairman of Chengwei Capital.  Chengwei is an investor in firms such as Youku.com, a Chinese Youtube-like service, AntonOil, the largest oil drilling and services company in China, and AAGI, China’s leading producer of coal-bed methane.  This is not Mr. Li’s first op-ed in the Times; last year they published Counterpoint: Debunking Myths about China.

So, why is China’s political model superior, exactly?  In Mr. Li’s view, America and other like-minded nations assume democracy is an end in itself, causing us to waste time and energy in pointless politicking.  Meanwhile,  Mr. Li tells us “China sees its current form of government, or any political system for that matter, merely as a means to achieving larger national ends”.  And what are those ends"?  Again, in Mr. Li’s words, “economic development” and the “national interest”.  As to who decides what those things are – for example, whether tainted formula is or is not in the national interest – Mr. Li says only it should be left up to the “leaders”.  He clearly feels China’s leaders are wise and resolute, citing the example of Tiananmen Square, an event for which the nation paid a “heavy price”, but nonetheless “ … ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.”

Chilling stuff.  But this grim utilitarianism faces outwards as well as inwards, as detailed in Stefan Halper’s The Beijing Consensus.  Dr. Halper is a distinguished academic and long-time republican who served in both the Reagan and Bush I’s administrations.  While he acknowledges the many humanitarian and rights-oriented perspectives on China, this book is about the perspective of global strategy.  Halper’s premise is that China’s state capitalism, linked with the ruthless political model praised by Eric Li, is a combination that is not only “beating the West at its own game”, but is also creating a global posture that is isolating us and, if left unchecked, could one day leave the Western democracies with few choices to debate.  How China is doing this is best illustrated by remarks from Abdoulaye Wade, President of Sengal, who in 2008 said:

China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations and non-governmental organisations. In fact, the Chinese model for stimulating rapid economic development has much to teach Africa … I have found that a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months when we have dealt with Chinese authorities.

Here is Li’s utilitarianism again.  Of course, Wade is not just talking about cutting red-tape, but about “incentives” for his ruling elite to allow projects to happen, something that Chinese companies can do easily, but that US companies, being subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, cannot.

Halper details how Africa is a key part of Chinese strategy.  Africa has at least 30 “totally or partly unfree” regimes, and China uses an ask-no-questions policy when dealing with their leaders – which makes sense, since China has a history of pleading offense when other nations comment on its own “internal affairs”.  The net benefit for China is expanded trade, access to energy reserves, access to critical high-tech natural resources (like cadmium, tin and tungsten), and support for its broader political agenda – for example, with Taiwan.

A second benefit is lurking in Eric Li’s op-ed – more and more countries seem to agree with him.  As Halper points out, the majority of people in Latin America, Africa, and most of the Middle East, now prefer “social order” over democracy.  It wasn’t always this way.  In 2002, 67% of Venezuelans said they liked American ideas on democracy; in 2007, the number was down to 40%.  Halper’s view is that wars in Irag and Afghanistan certainly haven’t helped American prestige, but what’s most important is that China is filling the vacuum we are creating.  When we consider that in the wake of the Arab Spring, democracy does not seem to be surging to the fore, the direction of Li’s op-ed becomes all the more worrisome.

Halper’s book lays out a blueprint for action.  His recommendations can be debated – there’s more democracy for you – but one of his points is crystal clear: America is still the strongest world power, and especially has potential for “soft power” that far outweighs Beijing’s.  Developing nations may like Chinese quick, utilitarian action, but they also can recognize the proverbial two-edged sword when they see it.  The day it becomes in the “national interest” for Beijing to deal harshly with any client, or even to pollute its water and air, by its own principles it will do so.  We democracies on the other hand can’t act that way – we have populations that for the most part won’t put up with that.  Yes, I know, there’s hundreds of counter-examples that can be cited.  I still say the difference is real.  We need to make sure the developing world sees those differences.

To wrap up, here’s the best way I can describe The Beijing Consensus: Before reading it I was like most Americans, I thought the most important things about China were the financial and employment impacts of US addiction to Chinese imports; eventually Yankee know-how would have gotten us out of that mess.  I would have dismissed Eric Li’s manifesto of political superiority as face-saving bluster of a slowly fading system, one that was inevitably destined to be replaced with some form of democracy – Chinese people have the same needs and wants as American people, right?  For me, Halper’s book put all that into the context of a bigger game, one where:

The expanding appeal of China’s governing model is shrinking the West – making our notions of society and government less relevant – and will do more to alter the quality of life for Americans and the West in the twenty-first century than any other development.

I can’t speak to the political or academic quality of Halper’s book – I’m neither a politician nor a professor – but as a member of the American democracy I found it insightful.  I certainly wish we could refute Eric Li’s op-end by having our 2012 candidates speak to the challenges Halper lays out.  Somehow I expect that is a job that we the people will have to do for ourselves.

Categories: Books
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