Nobody would deny that the opening of China to the outside world has loosened the vile Maoist yoke. By decollectivising agriculture, decentralising industrial control and encouraging foreign trade and investment, Deng Xiaoping afforded individual Chinese a degree of self-determination they had not known since the 1949 revolution.
Yet liberalisation had its limits, as was shown by the crackdown on the Democracy Wall Movement in 1979 and, more savagely, the Tiananmen Square massacre 10 years later. Under Deng's successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, economic autonomy has continued to expand, but the Communist Party has maintained its monopoly of political power. Indeed, under Mr Hu censorship of the media has been tightened and intellectuals subjected to increased harassment. The leadership in Beijing wants to maintain rapid growth and its exclusive right to rule. Indeed, it sees the first as providing legitimacy for the second.
All of which makes Tony Blair's comments in Beijing yesterday on the "unstoppable momentum" towards democracy in China sound Panglossian. The Prime Minister may be right that a growing middle class will induce political liberalisation, as has happened elsewhere in Asia. Equally, the outcome may be an open economy under tight political control, as in Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew or Chile under Augusto Pinochet. Sensing this, Mr Blair remarked yesterday that only time will tell.
The Prime Minister was obviously impressed that Wen Jiabao, his Chinese counterpart, was prepared to enter into a dialogue on such matters. Yet one wonders whether he pressed his interlocutor on sensitive specifics. These include Beijing's reckless antagonism towards the democratic island of Taiwan, a stance that poses one of the biggest threats to stability in East Asia; its failure to ratify the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; its continued oppression and colonisation of Tibet and Xinjiang; and the imprisonment of the journalist Ching Cheong, a British passport-holder who is a Hong Kong correspondent for the Singapore Straits Times.
Last September, Mr Hu told a closed session of the party plenum that, while North Korea and Cuba had wrecked their economies, they were on the right lines ideologically, in that they hadn't lost control of party cadres. Now, while that suggests an easing of the politburo's grip, it also expresses a determination to tighten it again. China's future is not as ineluctably rosy as a jejune Mr Blair implies. Not for the first time, a visiting dignitary, in this case at the head of an EU delegation, has been blinded to reality by the host country's sheer size and dynamism.