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Ted Galen Carpenter

China, East Asia

China may be getting richer, but that’s not making it freer.

Prepare for a More Authoritarian China

With the onset of China’s economic reforms in the late 1970s, a widespread belief took hold in the United States and throughout the Western world that establishing robust economic relations with the “new China” would lead to gradual political liberalization. That belief persisted even after the communist government’s June 1989 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Most proponents of increased diplomatic, political, and economic engagement with Beijing (including this author) concluded that the massacre, however tragic, was merely a regrettable interruption in the long-term liberalization process. Robert B. Zoellick, Deputy Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, memorably expressed the prevailing expectation that a more open China would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

Developments in recent years should create doubts about that assumption. Under President Xi Jinping, China has become noticeably more authoritarian, not less, at home. His presidency has been characterized by an insistence that all individuals in positions of responsibility devote more serious study of and adherence to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. He has conducted a systematic purge of the Party’s ranks in the name of combating corruption. Although that appeared to be a reasonable justification in some cases, given the level of corruption that had developed along with China’s meteoric economic growth, in other cases Xi seemingly used it as a pretext to get rid of personal and ideological rivals.

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