Sunday, January 31, 2010

A "consensus" sans democracy?

Katrin Bennhold reports in the International Herald Tribune  (as noted today by Thomas Friedman):
And as developing countries everywhere look for a recipe for faster growth and greater stability than that offered by the now-tattered “Washington consensus” of open markets, floating currencies and free elections, there is growing talk about a “Beijing consensus”...

Some suggest that China’s lack of democracy is an advantage in making unpopular but necessary changes. “It is more challenging for democratic systems because every day they come under public pressure and every short period they have to go back to the polls,” said Victor Chu, chairman of First Eastern Investment Group in Hong Kong, the largest direct investment firm in China. “China is lucky to have the ability to make long-term strategic decisions and then execute them clinically.”
During the last great crisis of Western capitalism, many people felt the same way about the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  The current Chinese government is a far more rational and accountable steward of the common weal than either of those monstrosities.  But I imagine that the advantages of dictatorship will eventually once again prove illusory -- or more accurately, the costs of repression will in the fullness of time be revealed to outweigh the benefits, and democracy will emerge once again as the worst form of government except for all the alternatives. As Gideon Rachman observed this past fall, the Chinese government relies currently relies on a social contract that will likely at some point show its fragility:

The government’s neurotic obsession with achieving its totemic figure of 8 per cent growth a year hints at the country’s continuing political fragility. Without a democratic mandate, the Communist party relies on rapid growth to keep the system stable. Somehow the country needs to make the transition to a system in which the government can draw upon alternative sources of legitimacy. Twenty years after the Tiananmen massacre, the Communist party shows no outward sign of contemplating a transition to a more democratic system. Meanwhile, the Chinese media speculate openly that social unrest could rise to dangerous levels, if economic growth slackens.
As the government moves now to "clinically" put the brakes on an overheating economy, here's hopeful for managable crises, and peaceful transformations.

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