The Beijing Consensus? Not quite.

In The Beijing Consensus: How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-first Century (Basic Books, 2010), Stefan Halper’s thesis is this: China’s rise, and increasing engagement on the world stage, is in essence neither a military nor material challenge to the primacy of the United States and the West; rather, it is an ideological (“ideational”) challenge – the titular Beijing Consensus is a political philosophy fundamentally incompatible with the tenets of Enlightenment-derived political liberalism to which the Western world subscribes, and it is one that holds increasing sway in the hearts and minds of many in the developing world today. Beijing’s engagement on the international stage is marked by two hard rules – the separation of business and politics and the sanctity of sovereignty (which overrides the former) –; these rules of engagement are inevitable given the domestic political economy that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) faces today. Given these conditions, China fits neither the “panda basher” narrative nor the “panda hugger” one; it does not seek to foment direct military or economic conflict with the United States, but nevertheless indirectly threatens the values of political freedom and individual liberty that the United States and other liberal societies hold so dear. In order to counter this ideological threat, Washington must approach the China challenge holistically rather piecemeal as is currently the case, but it must do so in the context of an increasingly multipolar world where multilateral action is necessary and solely bilateral engagement is counterproductive. The Beijing Consensus is thus an ambitious book that aims to identify China’s grand strategy, analyze its impact, pinpoint its determinants, and propose a suitable U.S. response, all in the space of 250 pages. In its bold ambition, the book regretfully succumbs to shallow analysis that exposes holes in its grand narrative if not detracting from its central thesis.

First, in assessing China’s impact in the rest of the developing world, Halper falls into the familiar trap of delusional neocolonialist mythology – that Western engagement in Africa and Latin America fosters development and democracy on the continent, and that it does so more than Chinese engagement does. Though he is careful to point out the historical failures and hypocrisies of Western aid and trade – from Cold War containment to the Washington Consensus to the propping up of resource states –, he asserts that the West today is finally treating Africa in a more benevolent, positive manner than ever before. However, as a large and continually growing literature attests, Western aid and trade has often and continually does more harm than good economically, and that no sustainable liberal democracy has arisen due to external pressure alone. In light of this empirical evidence, the counterfactual “China Effect” argument that Africa and Latin America would develop and democratize better without Chinese presence is highly dubious.

More salient to Halper’s thesis are the existing liberal democracies in China’s periphery. And here, due to his over-exaggerated dichotomy of Western versus Eastern values, Halper misses the point. The case of these liberal democracies matters on two fronts: first, the threat posed to them by China, and second, the political economy of their development. Lost in Halper’s discussion of Cross-Straits, Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean, and even Sino-Indian dynamics is the reality that whereas it is difficult to say that democracy would blossom in authoritarian states without Chinese influence, it is not difficult to argue that China’s desire for an “area of denial” and “string of pearls” along with its pseudo-historical expansionist claims present threat to the security, stability, integrity, and – in the case of Taiwan – existence of multiple liberal democracies that grace the Pacific Rim. Moreover, the history of democratic development in Korea and Taiwan casts doubt on Halper’s argument that popular demand for democracy will not arise in China. Halper astutely points out that popular criticism of government and society in China today is focused on breakdowns of order and harmony such as corruption and inequality; it poses no direct challenge to the prevailing statist political philosophy. However, he does not recognize that this was absolutely true in Korea and Taiwan until the mid-1980s as well, in societies that were even more Confucian and traditionalist than China is (Confucianism was and remains a central tenet in KMT political philosophy) – see, for instance, the Wildfire Collection (Yehuoji, 野火集), a remarkable and era-defining series of essays published in the 1980s by the influential essayist and cultural luminary Lung Ying-tai (龍應台). Despite, or perhaps because of this delayed democratization push, liberal democracy and liberal governance, despite growing pains, remains strong in Korea and Taiwan today, by any metric just as strong or arguably stronger than, say, Italy or Greece (this is most impressive in Taiwan, where even a Chinese Confucian-nationalist-reunificationist ruling party has not dared to directly challenge the principles of democratic governance). Halper is correct that demand for political freedom is not an inevitable product of a growing middle class (witness Singapore), but he presents no convincing evidence that such demand will not arise as it did under similar conditions in other East Asian polities.

Better handled is Halper’s discussion on Washington’s response. He correctly identifies the fractured nature of U.S. policy discussion on China, succinctly summarizing the positions of the various “panda bashing” and “panda hugging” groups and pointing out that they all suffer from the tendency to view the debate over Washington’s response as one of engagement versus containment. I would add, through personal experience working in the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai, that, the engagement view is winning out in diplomatic, commercial, and sometimes military policy; this presents a dangerous situation where the Washington views engagement as an end in itself while Beijing continues to extract relative gains whenever diplomatic or military engagement (what Washington likes to refer to as “cooperation”) occurs. Halper’s prescriptions to these problems are in general right on: the United States must develop a more holistic approach to China challenge, and that measures must be rooted in multilateral diplomacy of the sort that so annoys and that Washington has long undervalued. However, specific proposals, such as conceding on agricultural subsidies and engaging in de facto industrial policy, may not be possible in today’s domestic political environment.

Overall, Stefan Halper gets the big ideas right: the core challenge presented by the rise of China is an ideological one, and recognizing it as such, the liberal democratic world must respond in a holistic, multilateral manner. It is a pity that the length of his book does not give him the space to provide serious analytical support, and that he wastes space with some common misperceptions and faulty logic that afflict many Western thinkers and policymakers today.

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