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The Beijing vs. The Washington Consensus

The shift from communism to the market in China was both profound and gradual. It represented the transformation of the nation’s direction and economic ordering. It also potentially raised a more existential threat to the single-party rule of the CCP. If the country was no longer socialist, at least in practice, why did it still need to be led by a communist party? More to the point, why were the extreme measures of this government still required?

An immediate, and perhaps somewhat obvious, way the Party attempted to address these issues was to situate its strategic adoption of market policies into a broader and well-known narrative of ultimately realizing socialism. Here, rather ironically, for the goals of communism to be achieved the country first needed to take the road of marketization. In a March 1985 speech Deng defended the “development of an individual economy” specifically “joint ventures with both Chinese and foreign investment and of enterprises wholly owned by foreign businessmen.” He argued thus, in that “all our policies for carrying out reform, opening to the outside world and invigorating the domestic economy are designed to develop the socialist economy” (Den Xiaoping, 1985).

However, as Deng’s leadership gave way to Jiang Zemin and then later Hu Jintao, this promise seemed progressively empty. Far from moving toward deeper socialist relations or values, China was embracing the market ever more strongly, both economically and socially. In the wake of Tiananmen, Deng explicitly and firmly linked the values of protecting the nation through authoritarian measures with creating a stable environment for continued market reforms and development:

This turmoil has been a lesson to us. We are more keenly aware that first priority should always be given to national sovereignty and security ... This turmoil has also made us more aware of the importance of stability ... We can accomplish nothing without a stable environment. So we had to quell the turmoil by imposing martial law. (Deng Xiaoping, 1989)

Such justification would only be enhanced by his successors. Labeled a “neo-conservative” Jiang emphasized the need to maintain public order and social unity through strengthening the Party’s rule. This prioritization of stability was reflected in his motto wending yadao yiqie (“stability overrides everything”). In 1993 Jiang would declare the advent of a “socialist Market economy” or as popularly called in the foreign press a

“Leninist Market.” This move publicly reinforced capitalist transformation as a permanent and core element of the country’s future.

Yet while this slogan reaffirmed the CCP’s monopoly on power it did little to reassert its ideological authority for leading the country. It was imperative, therefore, to craft a new capitalist fantasy that would effectively, and affectively, combine economic capitalism with the continuing authoritarian rule of the CCP. To do so the Party turned to a familiar political discourse - positioning the Party as the sole actor capable of defending the nation against the threatening intrusions of an imperialist global order that would seek to exploit it.

Such rhetoric soon transformed into a more entrenched discourse pitting the so-called “Beijing Consensus” against an insidious “Washington Consensus.” The regime introduced the concept of a “Beijing Consensus” in May 2004, declaring that “China’s unique development experience of ‘coordinated development’ has been called by experts as [the] ‘Beijing Consensus’ to differ it from ‘Washington Consensus’.” This alternative did not imply a retreat from marketization toward orthodox communism. Instead, the “Beijing Consensus” focused on the need to “reduce the friction losses of reforms,” in the words of Western policy analyst Joshua Ramo (2004: 12), credited with coining the term. Moreover, he notes “The arrival of China’s fourth-generation leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in the fall of 2003 brought with it an end to the agonizing left-right intellectual debate about whether or not to marketise China’s economy” (ibid.: 22).

Importantly, this struggle served to entrench capitalism as a dominant social ideology. Whereas before, marketization was officially considered inherently exploitive and “incorrect,” the new emphasis promoted by the Party and other elites was on fighting off the wrong type of capitalism. In an official June 2005 article the Party explicitly framed debate around a “Beijing Consensus” against the “Washington Consensus,” describing this campaign as “the central leadership’s proposal to research and criticize neo-liberalism” due to the way it unquestionably “advocates privatization, blazons the perpetual role of the ‘private ownership myth’ and opposes public ownership” (People’s Daily, 2005a). In doing so, it explicitly and implicitly championed the existence of a correct form of marketization.

Apparent then was the promoting of capitalism domestically, ironically through the negative popular portrayal of globalization internationally. The regime was critical of how the USA employed its perceived neoliberal orthodoxy to spread its hegemony, declaring “global liberalization protects the liberal economy under the US’s dominance and opposes establishing a new international economic order” (ibid.). For these reasons it contended that “the global economy is in urgent need of vigorous growth and sound development in reflection on and transcending the conservative neo-liberalism economic thought” (ibid.). By contrast, the Beijing Consensus “was brought forward spontaneously by international opinions against the background of China’s fast economic development since the reform and opening up and considerable raise in people’s living standard” (ibid.).

In its place would be the campaign for a Chinese market that conformed to the nation’s unique cultural and historical realities and that would supposedly benefit the wider population and not foreign elites. Reflected is the development of a new Chinese fantasy of capitalism. Like all such affective discourses, it revolves fundamentally around a dual structure of a negative and positive fantasy. It presents a romanticized vision of capitalism that is forever imperiled by the threats of insidious enemies trying to maliciously prevent the achievement of this longed for perfect future. What is significant is that this fantasy, this continual antagonism between a Chinese and Western market, between the CCP and globalization, between the “Beijing Consensus” and “Washington Consensus,” creates a new foundation for individuals to construct a secure and appealing capitalist identity. The key, in this regard, is not simply the future attainment of this utopian Chinese market, nor the ultimate defeat of its enemies. Instead it is also the present ontological security that this unending political struggle provides subjects individually and collectively as capitalist Chinese citizens under the sole and correct leadership of the Party.

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