China celebrates — but history is certain to catch up

China celebrates — but history is certain to catch up. By Henry Ergas.

As China’s leaders celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule on Tuesday, the fate of the Soviet ­empire hung like a ghost over the jackboots and missiles parading through the streets of Beijing. …

In reality, China is less free today than it was two decades ago, and mounting internal repression has been accompanied by a blatant disregard of China’s promise to ­respect basic liberties in Hong Kong. That too reflects the lessons the communist leadership drew from the fall of the Soviet empire. …

But while China’s combination of brutal authoritarianism with a market-oriented economy averted Soviet-style disintegration, it has created tensions that are every bit as menacing.

There is, to begin with, an unbridgeable gap between the party’s communist ideology, which it relies on to justify the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, and the reality of a system whose levels of inequality rival Brazil’s, with the rampant cronyism and corruption that authoritarianism breeds compounding the sense of injustice. …

The fact of the matter is that China’s communist leaders were extraordinarily lucky. They opened China to the world at just the right time: the Uruguay Round of global trade negotiations was leading to a massive drop in tariffs; the information technology revolution was shredding the cost of transport and communications; and as inflation abated, the advanced economies grew quickly, fuelling consumer demand.

Moreover, with China still a small, relatively poor, economy, its trading partners were willing to tolerate its bending of the rules, all the more so in the easing of global tensions that followed the end of the Cold War.

Not any more.