Even since China's Communist Party revealed that it would scrap term limits on the presidency — meaning the post's current occupant, Xi Jinping, can now serve for life — there has been much hand-wringing over what one-man rule could mean for the Chinese economy. Autocracies, we're told, never end well, leaving economists and the business community concerned that the reforms the economy requires to return to solid footing, already slow in coming, may never be implemented.
There's cause for worry. While authoritarian regimes can show brief flashes of brilliance (remember Sputnik), they've proven again and again incapable of sustaining the creativity and innovation necessary for long-term economic success. Ideologically, we tend to believe that economic progress and democracy go hand in hand, and with good reason. Of the world's 10 largest economies, only one, China, isn't democratic.
Yet history in Asia is more complicated than that. The uncomfortable truth is that most of the region's economic miracles were nurtured by authoritarian regimes — either outright dictatorships (South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia) or regimes with autocratic tendencies (Singapore, Malaysia). That roster, of course, includes China. Despite all the fuss over Xi's power grab, China's rise to economic greatness took place entirely under authoritarian regimes (remember Tiananmen), albeit ones premised on cooperation among major leaders and factions.