“The Beijing Consensus” is an idea that has been hanging around for a while, as a supposed alternative to “the Washington Consensus,” itself an evolving term that has come to mean “free-market economics” or “Western-style economics.” The Beijing consensus is supposed to offer an alternative to the West: state-dominated economics, plus repressive politics. Some of those who espouse it, or some version of it, insist that not only do developing countries need top-down, carefully planned economies, but also they need rulers who stay in power for many years, the better to plan economic development.
Since the crisis of 2008-2009, the attraction of the Beijing consensus has grown. All across the developing world, and especially in Africa — Ethiopia, Rwanda and even South Africa — national leaders have declared their admiration for “authoritarian paths to development.” But not only in the developing world: With each passing generation, authoritarianism looks more attractive to the inhabitants of successful Western countries, too. Nearly a quarter of young Americans now say that democracy is a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country; 13 percent of European millennials say the same. Both percentages have risen dramatically in the past 20 years.
The trouble, of course, is that when people admire the achievements of autocracies, they are usually thinking of the achievements of tiny Singapore, or perhaps Shanghai. They aren’t thinking about the more impoverished regions of rural China, and they certainly aren’t thinking about Zimbabwe — a country that has nevertheless applied its version of the Chinese model consistently for four decades.
During most of that time, the country’s unchallenged leader was Robert Mugabe, now 93 and, as of Tuesday, under house arrest after what appears to have been a coup (though the military is calling it a “bloodless correction”). Mugabe has been using Marxist and Maoist language since he first became a guerrilla fighter in the 1960s, battling against the white minority government of what was then called Southern Rhodesia. When he finally became leader in 1980, he expressly followed the Chinese example, using terrorism against opponents, nationalizing land and industry, carrying out purges described as “cultural revolutions.”
Later, he began to use the more modern-sounding language of state capitalism — one recent document spoke of “indigenization” instead of “nationalization” and called for the “establishment of a Results Based Government that seeks to optimise utilisation of scarce resources.” But the effect was the same. Zimbabwe’s government — top-down, carefully planned, “safely” and “predictably” led by the same person for decades — led the country into utter disaster.
In March 2008, Mugabe used violence to “win” the second round of an election he had lost in the first round. In November 2008, Zimbabwe had 79.6 billion percent inflation, probably the second-highest in history. Nowadays, banks barely function. Shortages are rife. One of Africa’s better-off countries is now one of its poorest. Last spring, Evan Mawarire, the pastor of a church in Harare, draped himself in his country’s flag and made a heartbreaking, patriotic video calling for an end to corruption and poverty. Protests followed; Mawarire was arrested. Mugabe remained in charge.
Without some element of democracy, without a means of recognizing the existence of other leaders and parties, without some way of legally managing a change of power, it seemed impossible to remove him. Without some element of economic freedom and rule of law, only those with insider connections could prosper. The army’s intervention appears to have been the last chance: Mugabe was believed to be preparing to hand over power to his widely loathed wife.
The intervention may or may not end well. I asked one Zimbabwean in the diaspora how he felt about the coup, and he shrugged: “Anything is an improvement.” But the reassertion of an identical political system, this time with a different strongman on top, won’t bring real change. The only long-term hope is some form of power sharing, some form of economic decentralization, some opportunity for small businesses to thrive and ideas to be exchanged. The belief that authoritarianism is necessary for development led Zimbabwe, like so many other countries, into a dead end. If it’s tried again, it will eventually happen again, too.