The use of live ammunition by Hong Kong police against protesters fighting for freedom in the city on Tuesday is a sad but fitting way to mark the Chinese Communist Party’s 70th anniversary in power. What was once thought to be a regime headed for the dustbin of history instead is poised to become a challenge for freedom across the globe.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In the late 1990s, liberal democratic global capitalism looked to be the wave of the future. Scholars wrote about “the end of history” as the communist world collapsed and former authoritarian or socialist countries clamored to join the Western party. Communist China looked like just another one of the party-goers as it liberalized its economy and petitioned to join the World Trade Organization. The overconfident West said yes, certain that China would democratize its political system as its citizens grew wealthier.
The optimists took their cues from economic analysts who said that rising incomes were a precursor to political liberalization. This crude determinism seems quaint now, but it was common wisdom at the time. Back then, serious people said that economic growth would ensure that China would become a semi-democracy by 2015 and completely free polity by 2025. Such optimism continued to be commonplace even earlier in this decade.
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Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.