In the 90s there was a widespread belief in the west that economic progress in Asia would spread democracy. The fall of autocrats in Indonesia and the Philippines, the retreat of the Thai army from politics, and the birth of lively electoral politics in Taiwan were all seen as evidence. It could, it seemed, only be a matter of time before the process spread to the biggest elephant in the room, China. After the first shoe of the Deng Xiaoping's material revolution had made more people better off in a shorter time than ever in human history, the second sandal of political freedom must fall as well.

Not only has it not turned out that way, all the signs from the mainland are that the clock is being, at best, stopped and, quite possibly turned back. Facing manifold challenges, the Communist party is digging in its heels as President Hu Jintao presides over a campaign designed to reinvigorate the relic Mao left that, with the army and police, underpins his power.

Party members are being called to study sessions at which they are shown films depicting the terrible things that befell Russia after the fall of communism. Attendees might prefer to be getting on with business in their offices, but they know the material benefits party membership bring in terms of position and networks.

A widespread media clampdown is under way, affecting the websites as well as the press and broadcasting. There are warnings from conservatives that economic change is undermining the country's stability. The National People's Congress has shelved a law to bring some clarity to property ownership after criticism that it was too capitalist and destructive of "socialism with Chinese characteristics". Protesters trying to make their voices heard as the congress met in Beijing were bundled away.

Some of the criticism is justified - for instance, the danger of going pell-mell to market without a proper legal framework (but that simply means more emphasis should be put on getting politics and officialdom out of the law). However, the main motivation is to buttress the Communist party's status quo. In that, conservatives of the left can count on catering to the ever-present fears of the leadership that its monopoly on power may be compromised if it relaxes control.

With more than 70,000 protests a year on everything from land grabs by officials to pollution, Hu and his colleagues have much to worry about. If only for self-preservation, they may wish for a more "harmonious society" as the current slogan goes. But it will be on their terms.

That is in keeping with history - with one exception that ended in disaster for the would-be reformers in 1898, no Chinese administration has willingly relaxed its grip or let people decide their fate. So long as 10% growth persists, many Chinese and foreign governments and firms will be ready to go along with this - the stability of 1.3bn people is taken to override all other considerations. China is undoubtedly a much freer place for most of its citizens in individual terms than it was a decade or two ago, but that is not taken by the leadership as opening the door to democracy.

"What we need is a political Deng Xiaoping," a young entrepreneur from Shanghai said to me the other week. Neither of us is holding his breath.



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