Yang Yao (姚洋): The End of the Beijing Consensus

In Foreign Affairs, Yang Yao, Deputy Dean of the National School of Development and the Director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University, asks whether Beijing’s model of authoritarian growth, known as the Beijing Consensus, can survive:

Despite its absolute power and recent track record of delivering economic growth, the CCP has still periodically faced resistance from citizens. The Tiananmen incident of April 5, 1976, the first spontaneous democratic movement in PRC history, the June 4 movement of 1989, and numerous subsequent protests proved that the Chinese people are quite willing to stage organized resistance when their needs are not met by the state. International monitoring of China’s domestic affairs has also played an important role; now that it has emerged as a major global power, China is suddenly concerned about its legitimacy on the international stage.

The Chinese government generally tries to manage such popular discontent by providing various “pain relievers,” including programs that quickly address early signs of unrest in the population, such as reemployment centers for unemployed workers, migration programs aimed at lowering regional disparities, and the recent “new countryside movement” to improve infrastructure, health care, and education in rural areas.

Those measures, however, may be too weak to discourage the emergence of powerful interest groups seeking to influence the government. Although private businesses have long recognized the importance of cultivating the government for larger profits, they are not alone. The government itself, its cronies, and state-controlled enterprises are quickly forming strong and exclusive interest groups. In a sense, local governments in China behave like corporations: unlike in advanced democracies, where one of the key mandates of the government is to redistribute income to improve the average citizen’s welfare, local governments in China simply pursue economic gain.

More important, Beijing’s ongoing efforts to promote GDP growth will inevitably result in infringements on people’s economic and political rights. For example, arbitrary land acquisitions are still prevalent in some cities, the government closely monitors the Internet, labor unions are suppressed, and workers have to endure long hours and unsafe conditions. Chinese citizens will not remain silent in the face of these infringements, and their discontent will inevitably lead to periodic resistance. Before long, some form of explicit political transition that allows ordinary citizens to take part in the political process will be necessary.