As I said in my last post, many people with fancy degrees in political science have written about this before, which I am not responding to at this point (The Wikipedia entry touches on a few of these issues for those interested). I'm writing more about the misuse of the term "the Beijing consensus" in the Western press
Here is a definition thrown out in an article from Foreign Affairs just last February:
Many analysts attribute the country's economic success to its unconventional approach to economic policy -- a combination of mixed ownership, basic property rights, and heavy government intervention. Time magazine's former foreign editor, Joshua Cooper Ramo, has even given it a name: the Beijing consensus.
It's easy to see how this definition can be made into something of a straw-man. Heavy government intervention is rarely a good thing for economic development, and a country needs a lot more than basic property rights if its going to go anywhere on a development index. Time can throw this out as a definition, turn China into a socialistic bad guy, and then of course the US is proved right in the end.
The definition though gets the Chinese economic miracle all wrong. A common difficulty with reporting on China, is that the most obvious things to report on - what large companies and the government are doing - are rarely what's important. The majority of China's employment and sustainable growth are all being done by private enterprises which are poorly regulated - in good and bad ways.
Chinese people have a saying for this usually used in reference to the southern Guangdong province: "The mountain is high, and the emperor is far away," referring to the curious fact that the areas that are the primary drivers of employment and economic growth in China are also the areas that are far and away the least regulated (Check my Wenzhou article). When you get under the surface of the Chinese economy, one cannot help thinking that the Government mostly provides stability for a capitalistic free-for-all, while occasionally mucking up with the money it skims off the top.
Recently though, I've come to the conclusion that the Chinese government does something else quite well, in which its assisted by its extraordinarily high taxes and central command structure - it builds roads.
Not just roads, but railroads, ports, airports, mobile phone infrastructure, and (to a lesser degree) broadband infrastructure. A repeated theme in the African development literature I was reading prior to going to Egypt, and during my meetings while I was there, was that the major problem that Africa has isn't producing things, but getting those things to market.
I don't think this is an issue with authoritarianism. Central authority helps, as has been repeatedly pointed out in comparisons between infrastructure heavy China and infrastructure free India, but America went through its own Infrastructure boom between 1870 and 1940, without popular consequences. The key to development is rather a strong governmental conviction that infrastructure is their key responsibility.
This would all be academic if it wasn't for the fact that the American government seems to have lost its conviction that this is its responsibility. Lack of government involvement is part of the reason why we are falling behind in broadband rates, and our transport systems are all increasingly inefficient.
China's not a model of development, but they've done one thing completely right, and people should pay attention.