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September/October 2005 Issue
Development and Democracy
By Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs
Ever since Deng Xiaoping opened up China's economy more than 25 years ago, inaugurating an era of blistering growth, many in the West have assumed that political reform would follow. Economic liberalization, it was predicted, would lead to political liberalization and, eventually, democracy.
This prediction was not specific to China. Until quite recently, conventional wisdom has held that economic development, wherever it occurs, will lead inevitably -- and fairly quickly -- to democracy. The argument, in its simplest form, runs like this: economic growth produces an educated and entrepreneurial middle class that, sooner or later, begins to demand control over its own fate. Eventually, even repressive governments are forced to give in.
The fact that almost all of the richest countries in the world are democratic was long taken as iron-clad evidence of this progression. Recent history, however, has complicated matters. As events now suggest, the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker. Although it remains true that among already established democracies, a high per capita income contributes to stability, the growing number of affluent authoritarian states suggests that greater wealth alone does not automatically lead to greater political freedom. Authoritarian regimes around the world are showing that they can reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in China and Russia. Although China's economy has grown explosively over the last 25 years, its politics have remained essentially stagnant. In Russia, meanwhile, the economy has recently improved even as the Kremlin has tightened the political reins.
The overlap of these trends -- economic growth and shrinking political freedom -- is more than a historical curiosity. It points to an ominous and poorly appreciated fact: economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes. Zhao Ziyang, China's premier during the 1980
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