Here’s some unconventional wisdom, J.P. The way I see it, the free market bargain falls apart — stops being rational — if the Chinese are able to liberalize their markets strongly enough to fully participate in the international market without liberalizing their politics. The best way to do this, in my analysis, is to delink social policy from political policy.
How? China can grow progressively more ‘permissive’ when it comes to ‘personal freedoms’ by transfering the goods of that permissiveness away from the incentive structure of a liberal political system and into the incentive structure of a liberal economic system. If they succeed — and I strongly suggest that they’ve started to already — the Chinese will change the rational calculus that goes into the market theory of liberalization. Why trade with partners that will remain political opponents indefinitely? Why invest trust and risk into a trade regime they dominate? China will also be able to take away the use of markets as an American pressure point on domestic political liberty (democratization, Tibet, human rights).
None of this augurs particularly well for the US, but it all hinges on the ability of China to become what I’ve called elsewhere a pink police state — a politically despotic regime that grants its subjects broader and deeper access to pleasure-related economic and social goods in exchange for letting its absolute rule go absolutely unchallenged.