You may remember when the world was divided between communism and capitalism, and when the Chinese were communists. The Chinese still call themselves communists, but now they're also capitalists.
In fact, visit China today and you find the most dynamic capitalist nation in the world. In 2005, it had the distinction of being the world's fastest-growing major economy.
China is the manufacturing hub of the globe. It's is also moving quickly into the highest of high technologies. It already graduates more computer engineers every year than the United States.
Its cities are booming. There are more building cranes in use today in China than in all of the United States. China's super-highways are filled with modern cars. Its deep-water ports and airports are world class. Its research and development centers are state of the art. At the rate it's growing, in three decades China will be the largest economy in the world.
Communist, as in communal? Are you kidding? The gap between China's rich and poor is turning into a chasm. China's innovators, investors, and captains of industry are richly rewarded. They live in luxury housing developments whose streets are lined with McMansions. They dine in fancy restaurants, and relax in five-star hotels and resorts. China's poor live in a different world. Mao Tse Tung would turn in his grave.
So where are the Chinese communists? They're in government. The communist party is the only party there is. China doesn't have freedom of speech or freedom of the press. It doesn't tolerate dissent. Authorities can arrest and imprison people who threaten stability, as the party defines it. Any group that dares to protest is treated brutally. There are no civil liberties, no labor unions, no centers of political power outside the communist party.
China shows that when it comes to economics, the dividing line among the world's nations is no longer between communism and capitalism. Capitalism has won hands down. The real dividing line is no longer economic. It's political. And that divide is between democracy and authoritarianism. China is a capitalist economy with an authoritarian government.
For years, we've assumed that capitalism and democracy fit hand in glove. We took it as an article of faith that you can't have one without the other. That's why a key element of American policy toward China has been to encourage free trade, direct investment, and open markets. As China becomes more prosperous and integrated into the global market -- so American policy makers have thought -- China will also become more democratic.
Well, maybe we've been a bit naive. It's true that democracy needs capitalism. Try to come up with the name of a single democracy in the world that doesn't have a capitalist economy. For democracy to function there must be centers of power outside of government. Capitalism decentralizes economic power, and thereby provides the private ground in which democracy can take root.
But China shows that the reverse may not be true -- capitalism doesn't need democracy. Capitalism's wide diffusion of economic power offers enough incentive for investors to take risks with their money. But, as China shows, capitalism doesn't necessarily provide enough protection for individuals to take risks with their opinions.
Robert B. Reich is co-founder of The American Prospect. A version of this column originally appeared on Marketplace.