Steve Chapman

As repressive regimes go, this one could be worse. Robert Ross, a China scholar at Harvard and Boston College, says, "I would put China in the top 10 percent of all the authoritarian states in the world" -- comparing it favorably with many East Asian countries (notably North Korea and Burma), most Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, and most African nations.

He thinks the recent pre-Olympics security crackdown won't last long. And there is good reason to expect that in the coming years and decades, China will continue to progress in human rights.

Hoover Institution fellow Henry Rowen, an East Asia specialist, notes that development and democracy almost universally move in tandem. A market economy can't function without substantial freedom from state control. As countries become richer and more educated, they unleash forces that are incompatible with authoritarian rule.

You can usually anticipate political advances by gauging the rise of gross domestic product per capita. "In 2005," writes Rowen, "every country in the world (oil states excepted) with GDPpc topping $8,000 was at least Partly Free [as categorized by the human rights group Freedom House]; indeed, all ranked as Free except the tiny island city-state of Singapore." Given China's growth trajectory, he predicts it will move from Not Free to Partly Free by 2015 -- and by 2025, it will be "classed as belonging to the Free nations of the earth."

Anyone contemplating the thuggish repression still prevalent under the Beijing government may find that hard to imagine. But if the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is not to underestimate China's capacity for positive change.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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