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Opinion
Ian Buruma

Can China Prosper Without Freedom? Maybe Not

While the idea that democracy is the only route to riches may have been debunked, there are still good reasons to doubt that citizens can thrive under a more autocratic model.

Xi has an uncompromising message for Hong Kong — and China.

Xi has an uncompromising message for Hong Kong — and China.

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

On a rare visit to Hong Kong last week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the territory’s handover to China — his first trip outside the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic — Chinese President Xi Jinping set out his vision for the former British colony and by extension for the whole of China. Hong Kong, he said, had transitioned into a new phase, “moving from chaos to governance, and then from governance to greater prosperity.” This vision does not include free speech or anything resembling democratic politics.

Many people in the West have long assumed that liberal democracy provides the ideal conditions for building economic prosperity and that authoritarian rule stifles it. The contemporary Chinese Communist model, and even the softer Singaporean version, would appear to contradict this. Most Chinese citizens have become incomparably more prosperous than they were even a few decades ago. If you compare modern Chinese trains or airports with those in the United States, you might think that Americans are now living in what used to be called the Third World and China is by far the more developed country.