A broad notion that the People’s Republic of China represented an alternative and quite possibly superior model of social and economic organization has held sway in many quarters for two decades. Are we now to be done with that?
What is sometimes called the Beijing Consensus was the subject—or object—of so many thought pieces and earnest discussions over the period, some as late as last year. The West’s stumbles, such as in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and then the initial (post-Wuhan) stages of the Covid pandemic, contributed to a sense that an authoritarian state, able to mobilize and allocate resources, was better suited to sustained order and prosperity than are clamorous market-based democracies. This outlook required forgetfulness about earlier such martial experiments, going back at least to the 1930s, but never mind those dusty histories.
The preening of the Chinese Communist Party in this intellectual environment gained full flower with the rise of Xi Jinping and his expansive ambitions for global power and influence. Thanks to years of mercantilist trade policy—and of course to the productivity of an industrious citizenry—Beijing had flush coffers to put behind its new diplomacy. Meanwhile, the U.S., as representative of the opposing camp, was torn internally and consumed with hostilities abroad that served no particular end.
However, in a remarkably few months of 2022, the worm seems to have turned. Most visibly, China is caught up in a public-health fiasco over Covid that is drastically affecting millions of its people in multiple metropolises. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has exposed, to some in Europe and elsewhere who were in need of such exposure, an essentially rogue alliance that is, in fact, characteristic of Beijing’s foreign policy. Stifling of civil society in Hong Kong has not been a good look. And the underpinnings of the PRC’s wondrous record of economic growth, including a massive distortion of GDP toward the corporate sector and away from consumer welfare, have begun to weaken noticeably. While not as terminally fated as the “no Covid” medical strategy, the “no recession” approach to plugging each successive hole in the top-down investment-driven output model is only yielding a weaker return in each cycle. Cutting off China from many international sources of capital, as Xi’s nationalistic course has succeeded in doing, can only further gum up the works.
Although these essential weaknesses in China’s supposed armor—not the literal armor, which continues to grow alarmingly, but its case for moral superiority—are now more acute, they did not suddenly become manifest in 2022. Sophisticated appraisals, even from sincere Sinologists, have long flagged what so many chose to overlook. In her just-published book on Xi’s grand posture, The World According to China, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elizabeth Economy notes many contradictions and complications at work. (She has previously detailed the environmental horrors on the Mainland.) Also at the Council, a recent panel examined the PRC’s unfavorable demographics, the ultimate check on its supreme ambitions.
If the exalting of China’s modern reach reflected faddish consciousness as well as innate dislike for the less-bridled capitalism of America, then it may be susceptible to refutation by widely-broadcast events. Yet, Beijing can keep stoking coal into the motherland’s furnace (literally, at times) for a good ways to come. The odds certainly don’t favor an uprising against Xi, let alone the Communist Party, at home. The looming question is whether the constituency abroad will now be shaken.