As a purely factual matter, it turned out that dictatorships do not do a better job of producing economic growth. And economic growth has not proved the secret to democracy. We are now a quarter-century into expectations that Chinese economic growth, which has created a substantial middle class, would inevitably lead to greater political openness. Yet the trend has been in the opposite direction, as Chinese ruler Xi Jinping centralizes all power to himself and the government experiments with ever more thorough methods of political and social control.
As for the “liberalizing autocrat,” he turns out to be a rare creature indeed. Autocrats, as it happens, are disinclined to lay the foundations for their own demise. They do not create independent political institutions, foster the rule of law or permit a vibrant civil society precisely because these would threaten their hold on power. Instead, they seek to destroy institutions and opposition forces that might someday pose a challenge to their dictatorial rule. Why should we expect otherwise?