Under Hitler, the Flying Hamburger train covered the distance between Berlin and Hamburg in 138 minutes; in postwar democratic Germany, it took the railroad 66 years to match that record. The reasons are simple. The Nazis didn't have to worry about local resistance and environmental-impact statements. A German-designed maglev train now whizzes back and forth between Shanghai and the city's Pudong International Airport; at home, it was derailed by a cantankerous democracy rallying against the noise and the subsidies.
History does not bode well for authoritarian modernization, whether in the form of "controlled," "guided" or plain state capitalism. Either the system freezes up and then turns upon itself, devouring the seeds of spectacular growth and finally producing stagnation. (This is the Japanese "model" that began to falter 20 years before the de facto monopoly of the LDP was broken.) Or the country follows the Western route, whereby growth first spawned wealth, then a middle class, then democratization cum welfare state and slowing growth. This is the road traveled by Taiwan and South Korea—the oriental version of Westernization.
The irony is that both despotism and democracy, though for very different reasons, are incompatible with dazzling growth over the long haul. So far, China has been able to steer past either shoal. It has had rising riches without slowdown or revolt—a political miracle without precedent. The strategy is to unleash markets and to fetter politics: "make money, not trouble."
Can China continue on this path? History's verdict is not encouraging.