Although this economic resurgence gives the Chinese model of enlightened authoritarianism a veneer of vitality, liberal reforms have underwritten its success.
When Mao Zedong died in 1976, the Chinese economy was contracting by 1.6% annually and GDP per capita was a paltry US$163.
Determined to dismantle the most suffocating elements of Maoist central planning, the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping decollectivised agricultural production and created business-friendly Special Economic Zones.
In the 35 years since Deng launched China’s real Great Leap Forward, the economy has experienced uninterrupted expansion and annual growth has averaged 10%, with GDP per capita now more than US$5,500.
Just as economic liberalisation has made China rich, a degree of political freedom has made China’s authoritarian system more adaptable and responsive.
Starting in the early 1980s, elections were introduced at the local level, with open nominations becoming national law in 1998.
Elected village leaders are unlikely to openly oppose central government policy, but they can delay or ineffectively enforce unpopular measures, such as the One Child Policy and the expropriation of land.
Village elections thereby provide citizens with some protection from Beijing’s edicts, while also ensuring that government spending better reflects local preferences.
With China’s authoritarian one-party system grappling with unrest in its ethnically diverse western provinces, chronic abuses of power by communist party officials, and the transition from an unsustainable debt-fuelled growth model, liberal reforms are still needed.
Xi Jinping’s presidential tenure might not produce major reformist initiatives. But just like its rise to date, China’s future success will depend on ever greater freedoms unlocking the entrepreneurial talents and ambition of the world’s largest nation.
Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.