Steve Chapman

But authoritarian governments don't last forever, and this one faces changes it can't control. Back in 1996, Asia scholar Henry Rowen of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University noted that when countries reach a per capita income level of $8,000 (unless the money comes mostly from oil), they invariably become freer. Given China's pace of economic development, he predicted that it would become a democracy "around 2015."

When I called him the other day to ask about that forecast, Rowen sounded optimistic. Ever-growing incomes and a growing middle class are not the only stimuli for positive change, he noted: "Rising education levels also predispose people to voice their views on things that affect their sense of justice or that directly affect their lives."

Because of the rise of capitalism in China, the country's people have gained a large measure of freedom -- in such critical matters as where they work, where they live and where they may travel. The sphere of personal autonomy is vastly larger than it was in the dark days of Mao Zedong.

Technology holds promise. "The blogosphere is a very lively place, and it's huge," he says. "The censors have an impossible job to shut off things they don't like." People unhappy with the government can now easily find others who agree and mobilize to spread the word.

Chinese have also taken to traveling abroad -- particularly to Taiwan, which has fiercely contested elections, an aggressive press and wide-open debate. It's living proof that democracy can develop in China without disastrous social upheaval or mass violence.

It's no surprise that the Communist Party thinks it can prevent such change on the mainland. Autocratic regimes rarely leap at the chance to empower the citizenry. But this one is not exempt from the powerful forces unleashed by China's transformative economic miracle.

The Communist Party insists the old dictatorial system works fine for a modern society. It's a familiar message, but somehow, the Chinese are choking on it.

Steve Chapman

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

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