The Beijing consensus: China has astonished the world, but is the dragon as formidable as it looks?

AuthorWhitaker, Reg
PositionForeign Policy

Political scientist Reg Whitaker is a member of the Inroads editorial board. He visited China in the fall of 2010.

To understand the policies of the Chinese government, foreign as well as domestic, it is necessary to understand the tacit social contract that underpins the regime. It begins with economic development. Any visitor to China today--at least to the most developed urban parts of this vast country--cannot but be astonished by the sheer magnitude and swiftness of the transformation from an underdeveloped and misruled Communist autocracy into a capitalist dynamo that has just outpaced Japan to become the second largest economy on earth and has its sights on eventually closing in on the United States at the top of the global league tables.

Take two examples. Beijing two decades ago was a city of bicycles. Today there are more than four million automobiles on the roads of Beijing. Six ring roads with intersecting connectors, all of them multilane freeways, are congested from day to night. The Beijing authorities have even been forced to restrict the number of car purchases, with a lottery system for new licences.

Shanghai was once a city ground under the heel of arrogant Western colonialism, where the European lords of the earth erected the notorious "No dogs or Chinamen allowed" signs around their privileged enclaves. Today its business district looks like a 22ndcentury science-fiction city of the capitalist imagination. Pudong is the area of Shanghai directly across the river from the Bund, the street that ringed the old foreign enclave area. Twenty years ago Pudong was entirely farmland. Today it is the site of what must rank as one of the world's premier urban skylines--matching Singapore, outdoing Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manhattan, with its sheer plenitude of ultramodern towers vying with one another in stunningly imaginative design as they push skyward in exuberant commercial cacophony. At night the Pudong skyline becomes a symphony of lighting effects, with rainbow cascades of colours up and down the walls, the offices of enterprise metamorphosed into effervescent spires of the night.

The Great Wall took decades and the blood, sweat and sacrifice of millions to erect. In Shanghai, more than 10,000 high-rise buildings have been erected in the past 20 years. Construction firms work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Of course, the planners are not bothered with zoning restrictions, onerous building regulations or union rules, and certainly not with citizen groups protesting the destruction of old neighbourhoods or the elimination of green space. Shortly after nay visit, a 28-storey residential tower caught fire while being renovated and scores of residents burned to death: apparently building codes for safety exits were less than adequate, and there was no legal requirement for sprinklers. And the pollution is appalling. But even with the dysfunctional side-effects that disfigure capitalist hyperdevelopment everywhere, one is still astonished at the stunning speed with which China has emerged as the ascending economic superpower of the 21st century.

The unspoken social contract

No one can deny the astounding power of the market forces unleashed by the economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping. The material evidence is everywhere. What is bizarre about China's headlong capitalist transformation is that it is directed by Communists, in the name of Communism. It is the same state, the same party, the same gang of autocrats and apparatchiks who brought four decades of zealous Maoist ideology and often downright imbecilic economic policy--such catastrophic follies as the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s when Mao's brutal collectivization policies led to famines in which 35 million or more people perished. As late as the 1960s and early 1970s, the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution wracked Chinese society from top to bottom, as gangs of youthful zealots ran amok with official sanction, destroying or maiming everything and everyone in their wake like crazed locusts.

No one in China today tries to justify the Cultural Revolution. Everyone readily admits its insanity, and shudders at the memory. Deng Xiaoping is the new Great Helmsman, putting Chairman Mao in the shade. All China's newfound riches and its correct policies are attributed to Deng's reforms. To young Chinese, China's modern history starts with Deng's reforms; what came immediately before is a distant dark age.

Strangely, Chairman Mao is still quite visible. His portrait still stares out over Tiananmen Square (although now matched by a statue of Confucius). Along the Bund in Shanghai, a statuary Chairman stares across at the capitalist Oz of Pudong. But Mao is a curiously absent presence. The idiocies and atrocities carried out under his direction and encouragement are freely acknowledged but never as the results of Mao's and the Communist leadership's decisions. It is as if actual Maoist policies were malignant natural forces like floods, droughts or tsunamis rather than the malevolent responsibility of the men who actually conceived, implemented and enforced them. It is commonplace to hear young Chinese express revulsion at what they have learned about the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, while at the same time referring to the continued wise direction of the country under a Communist Party whose lineage extends in direct succession from Mao to Deng to today's Hu Jintao. Yet there is no alternative to this contradiction within the ruling narrative. The same gang that brought the crimes of the past is bringing the gifts of the present. Blame them for the former, and one risks the latter.

And thus the unspoken but almost universally acknowledged social contract. It goes like this: the regime promises unlimited economic growth and an open door of opportunity for individual enrichment; the quid pro quo is that the population agrees to give the regime a free hand in the political arena. If the people seek to participate directly in the political process bypassing the party, if they insist on direct accountability of party officials, if they publicly question the authority of the party to make all the key decisions, then unlimited economic growth will be threatened and the people will suffer. The other side of the contract, yet to be tested, poses an equivalent obligation on the party: if the regime fails to deliver continual economic growth, the people may reconsider their obligations. In the parlance of the old pre-Communist feudal regime, it will be seen to have "lost the mandate of heaven."

China today is far from such a revolutionary or even prerevolutionary stage, but there is an unspoken threat in the air concerning the fulfilment of the social contract, on both sides. The party and state must understand the implications of any prolonged plunge into economic stagnation or decline and the prevalence of frustrated expectations. On the other side, the...

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