In China the affairs of state had always been kept out of view of the public, and been unveiled only at the end as a fait accompli. But now the uncooked ingredients—the deals, the feuds, the peccadillos, the betrayals—were tumbling into the open air to be judged and evaluated. People were assessing whether the values of the system now on display lived up to their own moral aspirations. By 2012 a Chinese person was going online for the first time every two seconds—still, barely half the population was using the Web. Before he went to prison, Liu Xiaobo pointed out that his inspiration, Havel’s Charter 77, had appeared more than two decades before the political system around it evolved in the way its authors envisioned. In Havel’s view, the key to life under a Communist Party was the maintenance of a double life—the willingness to say one thing in public and another in private, because of fear or interest or a combination of the two. Eventually that double life became untenable.</p>

In China, the double life was eroding. The reality of extreme inequality was now inescapable: one part of China lived in a different material universe from the rest of the country. This was true in many countries, of course, including my own, but in China it was especially deeply felt; the nation was just one generation removed from bitter sacrifices in the name of egalitarianism. Moreover, the gap between the society’s meritocratic myth and its oligarchic reality was becoming clear and measurable. In 2012 a team of political scientists (Victor Shih, Christopher Adolph, and Mingxing Liu) challenged one of the essential shibboleths surrounding China’s rise: the Party had always maintained that its ruthless devotion to development—“the hard truth,” as Deng put it—ensured meritocracy because it rewarded cadres who made the shrewdest economic decisions. But the researchers found no evidence to support this; on the contrary, Chinese officials with good economic track records were no more likely to be promoted than those who performed poorly. What mattered most was their connections with senior leaders.</span></p>