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Autocracy With Chinese Characteristics

Beijing’s Behind-the-Scenes Reforms

Work in progress: repainting in Jiaxing, China, May 2014 Chance Chan / Reuters

Sooner or later this economy will slow,” the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared of China in 1998. He continued: “That’s when China will need a government that is legitimate. . . . When China’s 900 million villagers get phones, and start calling each other, this will inevitably become a more open country.” At the time, just a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Friedman’s certainty was broadly shared. China’s economic ascent under authoritarian rule could not last; eventually, and inescapably, further economic development would bring about democratization.

Twenty years after Friedman’s prophecy, China has morphed into the world’s second-largest economy. Growth has slowed, but only because it leveled off when China reached middle-income status (not, as Friedman worried, because of a lack of “real regulatory systems”). Communications technology rapidly spread—today, 600 million Chinese citizens own smartphones and 750 million use the Internet—but the much-anticipated

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