Suppose the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests ended not in a bloodbath, but in the collapse of Chinese Communism and the establishment of multi-party democracy.  What would have happened to the Chinese economy between 1989 and today?  Would it have done better, worse, or about the same?

Fans of democracy will probably insist that Chinese growth would have been even higher. Censorship and fear make it hard for China to fully integrate with the world marketplace.  And democracy would probably put an end to internal migration restrictions and the one-child policy.  Internal migration restrictions seem clearly anti-growth; and while the short-run effect of the one-child policy is pro-growth (though less than the zero-child policy!), in the long-run China is merely ensuring a demographic crisis even worse than Japan’s.

Most economists, I suspect, will take the opposite position: Growth would have been worse.  Even if they are sharply critical of the current regime, they’ll appeal to probability: Chinese growth was so high during the last two decades that it’s hard to believe that any realistic alternative could have out-performed it.  They might even add that the Communist leadership stifled misguided populist policies.

The last position, of course, is that growth would have been about the same.  By 1989, China’s entrepreneurial energy was chomping at the bit.  Only severe repression could have stifled it.  And for all its flaws, democracy almost never leads to severe repression.

My view is that all three scenarios are roughly equally plausible.  So in the absence of clear-cut proof that democracy would killed two decades of growth in the cradle, the non-collapse of Chinese Communism in 1989 – and the massacre of thousands of peaceful protesters – was a great moral tragedy.   In fact, even if economic growth would have been much lower under democracy, the track record of Chinese Communism is so awful that peacefully wiping it off the face of the earth would have been a great blessing even from a purely consequentialist perspective.

What’s your answer?