Premier Wen Jiabao’s Shenzhen Inspection Tour and the “Beijing Consensus”

|China

On the two days of 20 and 21 August this year (2010), China’s Premier Wen Jiabao visited the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone which marked the thirtieth anniversary of its establishment.1 In addition to energetically inspecting local communities, port facilities, cutting-edge enterprises and research institutes, he made a trip to Shenzhen Museum for a special exhibition on “Deng Xiaoping, the Chief Architect of Reform and Opening-Up” immediately before its opening to the public, and also presented a bouquet at the bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping. Premier Wen praised the development of Shenzhen thus: “[it] is a microcosm of Chinese society’s transforming and drastic change since reform and opening-up, and is a vivid embodiment of the formidable vitality of socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Just a few days earlier, it was reported that China had overtaken Japan in its GDP for the second quarter (April to June) of this year, and become the second largest economy in the world. In terms of per capita GDP it remained, as before, at a level one tenth that for Japan, and conversely, on the basis of purchasing power parity, which takes price levels into consideration, as it long ago passed Japan, the recent “coming-back from behind” may not mean that much. The “coming-back from behind”, however, was earlier than expected (in October 2003 Goldman Sachs forecast it would occur by 2015 in Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050), and additionally, because it took place in this period when the industrialized economies have been struggling, its psychological impact was great.

As is well known, the US-led new liberal capitalism came face to face with a serious crisis that stemmed from the problem of subprime loans. Via a spate of incidents in the United States, the heart of things, including the massive bailout of Bear Stearns in March 2008, the failure of Lehman Brothers in September of the same year, and the turning of GM into “Government Motors” in June the next year, it began to be widely recognized that the market’s ability to right itself was at its limit, or that in leaving matters to the market the loss to society would be incalculable. To put it another way, the dogma of new liberalism they call the “Washington Consensus” has fallen. Under such conditions, China has quickly shrugged off the global recession, and because it has leapt into second position in the world’s largest economies, even more than its having overtaken Japan, the impression has grown far stronger that it is pressing the world’s number one, the United States.

As a term being counterposed to the “Washington Consensus” there is the “Beijing Consensus” which is characterized by state-led development regimes and undemocratic political systems. Of course this doesn’t mean that the Chinese government created the concept of the “Beijing Consensus”, and it is also not something showing a standard to other countries or urging application like the “Washington Consensus”. Rather, from the standpoint of China itself, as also expressed in the term “Chinese characteristics”, there is a characteristic of having the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, and respecting the diversity of countries. If there is a problem then it is probably that China—being of an undemocratic nature domestically more than coercive to the outside world (that would be interference in internal affairs!)—is becoming “the world’s largest billboard advertisement for the new alternative of ‘going capitalist and staying autocratic.’ “, as Stefan Halper points out in The Beijing Consensus (Basic Books, 2010). Put simply, the expansion of China’s economic presence is, directly and indirectly, increasing the alternatives for countries that want to realize economic growth but don’t desire democratization. Would this mean that the recognition that the universalization of democracy and capitalism accompanying the end of the Cold War, which Francis Fukuyama expressed with “The End of History”, was a mistake?

It is from China domestically, rather, that voices appearing to affirm “The End of History” are increasing, calling for the inevitability of political reform and democratization in China in the future. In “The End of the Beijing Consensus” by Yao Yang (Peking University), contributed to the online edition of Foreign Affairs in February of this year, it was concluded that “there is no alternative to greater democratization if the CCP wishes to encourage economic growth and maintain social stability.” In addition, even within Wen Jiabao’s main discourse during this Shenzhen inspection tour, it was stressed that: “China should push forward not only economic restructuring but also political restructuring. Without the safeguarding of political restructuring, China may lose what it has already achieved through economic restructuring and the targets of its modernization drive might not be reached.” Furthermore, fairly groundbreaking content was brought up including the guaranteeing of the people’s democratic rights and legitimate interests, the resolution of the problem of over-concentration of power and ineffective supervision, and the creation of conditions to allow the people to criticize and supervise the government, among other matters.2

The discourse on his Southern Tour by Deng Xiaoping in January and February 1992 played a role in the renewed call for reform and opening-up. Will the main discourse in Wen Jiabao’s Shenzhen inspection tour this time round lead to political restructuring?

  1. Guangdong Xinhua Channel “Wen Jiabao: Jingji tequ shi gaigekaifang de qizhi he fengxiangbiao” [Wen Jiabao: The Special Economic Zone is the Rallying Banner and Weather Vane of Reform and Opening-Up], 23 August 2010 (http://www.gd.xinhuanet.com/newscenter/2010-08/23/content_20688562.htm).
  2. Xinhuanet “Wen Jiabao Shenzhen kaocha: Zhiyou jianchi gaigekaifang, guojia cai you guangming qiantu” [Wen Jiabao’s Shenzhen Inspection Tour: Only through Adherence to Reform and Opening-Up Will the Nation have a Bright Future], 21 August 2010 (http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2010-08/21/c_12469709_2.htm).

[Translated by ERINA]