Following close on the heels of Brexit and far-right gains in Europe, Donald Trumps’ narrow but surprising victory in the 2016 US Presidential election has led many to identify an emerging international pattern. The Economist has dubbed it the New Nationalism and depicted Trump marching alongside Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Yet, the label falls somewhat short. Trump’s victory extends far beyond nationalism and diverges significantly from Putin’s imperial approach to foreign policy. Instead, China-watchers might recognize something resembling the Beijing Consensus, the strategy that China has pursued over the past few decades.
Describing a set of Chinese policies and approaches dating back at least to the early 1990s, the term “Beijing Consensus” was coined in 2004 by Joshua Cooper Ramo. Although somewhat different than Ramo’s original conceptualization, six critical aspects mark the cornerstones of this new Global Beijing Consensus:
1. Relative isolationism
2. A zero-sum view of international trade
4. An appeal to past greatness
5. Ethnic nationalism
6. An authoritarian streak
Of course, there are major caveats to this. In the US and Europe the phenomenon is pinned to election results that include a narrow victory for Brexit, a popular vote loss for Trump, and limited success for European nationalists. This does not necessarily portend a global reordering. Even President Trump might turn out to be much less protectionist, isolationist, and authoritarian than his critics fear. Yet, unprecedented levels of support suggest the possibility of a new and shockingly different global consensus. For those unconvinced of the Global Beijing Consensus, consider each of the components in turn:
1. Relative Isolationism
The isolationism of Trump and Brexiters more closely resembles Beijing than Moscow. Brexit’s turn away from the internationalist European Union and Trump’s hesitance to support even NATO allies could not be more different than the hyper-involvement of Putin’s Russia, from annexing bits of the Ukraine, to Russia’s air campaign in Syria, to its apparent attempts to influence foreign elections. Like Beijing, Trump and the Bexiters seek to avoid foreign commitments and create a foreign policy that prioritizes domestic image over international substance. Trump’s wall or Brexiteers’ complaints about a ban on bendy bananas are little different from Beijing’s spats over uninhabited islands, costly and pointless bluster designed to stoke nationalist support for their proponents.
2. Zero-Sum View of International Trade
Closely linked to isolationism is a view of free-trade as a zero-sum game that should be played only for a country’s own benefit. Here, the comparison with China is explicit. In Mr Trumps own words: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.” In other words, the Global Beijing Consensus sees China as an example of how to engage the global economy only where and when it is to a country’s advantage.
The Global Beijing Consensus has an indifferent relationship with the truth. Brexiteers touted fictions about £350 million a week that could be spent at home instead of sent to the EU. Only 15 percent of Trump’s statements have been rated true or mostly true by Politifact. Both have helped make “post-truth” Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. Beijing may be in a class by itself when it comes to fiddling statistics and controlling the news, but playing fast and loose with the facts is a vital component of making the Global Beijing Consensus viable.
4. Ethnic Nationalism
The Global Beijing Consensus taps into and reinforces ethnic nationalism. In China, where the Han majority is overwhelmingly dominant and non-Han immigration is almost non-existent, this takes a variety of, often patronizing, forms. In the US and Europe, ethnic nationalism tends to revolve around a fear that dominant ethnic, cultural, and/or religious groups are under threat from immigrants. The favored solution tends to be a much tighter immigration policy, one that looks more like China’s.
5. An Appeal to Past Greatness
Those following the Global Beijing Consensus harken back to, somewhat imagined, past glories. For hard-right Europeans this is perhaps pre-World War II. For the US it is post-World War II and for China maybe pre-Opium Wars. As Mike Pillsbury recently pointed out on NPR, Trumps’ “Make America Great Again” is an echo of the CCP’s decades long effort to return China to greatness, sometimes called the “Road to Revival” (复兴之路 in Chinese). The Global Beijing Consensus works by creating a sense that past glory was squandered and that only forceful leadership can bring it back
6. An Authoritarian Streak
The Global Beijing Consensus contains an authoritarian streak that is less interested in the niceties of rule of law, free speech, and human rights. The comparison with Beijing is more than a little unfair; whatever their shortcomings, Donald Trump, Brexiters, and European Nationalists are still operating in democratic contexts. The Chinese Communist Party, by contrast, barely bothers with the pretense of elections. Yet, there does seem to be evidence of correlations between authoritarianism and support for Trump as well as a growing trend of Authoritarian Populism across Europe. Further, even the National Review sees Trump as a threat to free speech and it is easy to identify a lack of respect for human rights in European efforts to ban certain styles of religious dress.
So how did this happen? Even the proponents of the Beijing Consensus imagined only that it might spread to other developing countries, not to liberal free-market democracies. At its core, the hard-right turn of the Global Beijing Consensus is intimately tied to globalization, which is widely seen as having hurt the economic prospects of many in the US and Europe. With China seen as the big winner of globalization, it makes sense that those aggrieved by the process would either implicitly or explicitly develop an agenda similar to the one that has apparently brought Beijing such success.
Finally, for anyone unconvinced that Europe and the US might be starting to emulate China, I leave you with this thought: China’s inequality has risen so dramatically and its immigration policy is so tight, that it currently has more billionaires than refugees. If that does not sound like Trump’s vision for America, I am not sure what does.