Is the rest of the world getting China wrong yet again? Maybe the country is not doomed to live out unending top-down rule. What is history, after all, but the realization of the wills of countless unpredictable human beings.

Past mistakes about China are too numerous to mention. When it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, many thought China would liberalize. Since Japan, Taiwan and South Korea had all gone on to become full-fledged democracies after periods of autocracy, the pattern was clear: Once they were fairly wealthy, the growing middle classes demanded a say in their government. At the time, it hardly seemed crazy to believe China might go down a similar path.

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