When Deng Xiaoping opened up China’s economy more than 25 years ago, the prevailing view in much of the West was that his reforms signaled the beginning of the end for the country’s authoritarian regime.
This prediction was not specific to China. Conventional wisdom at the time held – and to some extent still holds – that market liberalization is the most reliable path to democracy. Economic openness, it was reasoned, leads to the emergence of an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that over time, will start to demand more and more control over its own fate.
But something went wrong in China, Russia and other states where authoritarian regimes loosened the economic reins. Economic growth arrived but liberal democracy is still nowhere is sight. The reason is simple but disturbing: A new and more sophisticated breed of autocrat has discovered a strategy that permits them to enjoy the benefits of economic growth while postponing – often for decades – the emergence of authentic competitive democracy.