A popular belief: economic development leads to political development, is wrong.
Quite the contrary, political development is usually the result of economic recessions. This make people think about the need of reforms. In such period, they come to realize two things. First, they realize the system which they once believed to be able to bring them good lives, is problematic; Second; that system was not the reason of their past prosperity.
Those who earn less income will become reformists; those who don’t will be supporters to the current system. This leads to conflicts. If it is a class conflict, it leads to democratization. If it is a regional conflict, the result is either secession or stronger decentralization. For example, there are two regions in a country, namely A and B, which are different in political situations. A is prosperous economically, but with weak political influence, while it is the opposite for Region B. If there is an economic downturn, A will suffer more losses economically (they will lose economically, but their political power will not increase); while Region B suffer little, or even gain relatively, considering their economy relies heavily on political power (such as investments in public utilities).
If there are enough intelligent people in Region A, they naturally seek to retain the resources for their own region. It is just unreasonable to pay large amount of taxes during downturns to sustain Region B. This means Region A will try to fight for more political power. So the results are those which happened in the Netherlands, the US and Canada in your history textbooks.
The optimal solution will be the mutual agreement between the two regions with certain form of decentralization, such as the relationship between the Dominion of Canada and the British Empire; Confederation; Federation; or the situation like current Quebec. All these mean to the end of centralization while retaining some forms of diplomatic alliance. In less optimal scenarios, Region B may turn a blind eye to such requests, while Region A fights for its rights by turning itself into a highly xenophobic autonomy. An example is the Mutual Protection of the Southeast China in late Qing Dynasty after Eight Power Expedition. In the worst scenario, Region B will use its political power (i.e. military and institutional power) to intervene. This will lead to vigorous or even military conflicts, that is, separatist movements. If military force is used, that is secession and civil war. If secession is successful, this leads to independence. If failed, the political and economic of both regions will suffer serious destructions. Economies of both regions fall back to their starting points, which help to restore initial stability.
If economic development is not accompanied by the same extent of intellectual development, the latter scenarios will likely happen. That is, thinking that suppression as the most effective and successful way to consolidate institutional power, which leads to the result that economic prosperity is sacrificed for the established power to sustain. This is the most fearful thing. If they are intelligent enough, the former scenarios will likely happen. But regarding to their wisdom, I don’t have much confidence.
Civilization is dynamic: it evolves and is ever changing. Every society will develop to a critical point, just like examinations for students.
Every turmoil leads to a new era.
Chinese society, however, revolves around the same cycle, like a student who fails examinations and repeats his study again and again. Every rise and fall of the Chinese society is a cycle. Every time when the society evolves to a critical point, it fails to pass the challenge and falls back to the starting line. An example is the time of Li Zicheng (李自成, a rebel leader in late Ming Dynasty) Rebellion. It was a bottleneck of an ancient empire which the Chinese society failed to transform into a modern society. Failing this, the society fell back to the starting line again. Everything built up from ruins again, another ancient empire with imperial examination was reestablished, went through a period of prosperity, then to the bottleneck again.
Whether a society can pass the bottleneck depends on how many new thinking or ideas are produced, and whether the society is strong enough to sustain from the impacts of these. If every citizen is fearful to the new ideas, then the fate like that of the Chinese society is a probable result. You just can’t pass it, as you have no new tricks to solve the old problem. So you can do nothing but to sit and watch the situation deteriorates, devouring everything, and then you have to start all over again. Just like a student, failing his exams, start all over again but his age grows.
To pass the bottleneck, several criteria have to be met: the improvement of the overall quality of the society; strengthening of the sense of responsibility and righteousness; the accommodative minds to accept knowledge and thinking. For example, you have enlightened soldiers who can resist the lust of military dictatorship; politicians who know that military action is the last resort; political groups which can operate independently from commands or orders; the accommodative attitude among individuals and groups to handle turmoil, etc. These are what we require when we are facing the bottlenecks.
Repeated experiments in the last thousands of years taught us that it is unrealistic to avoid bottlenecks. Chinese always think of the ways to avoid turmoil, instead of facing and overcoming it. Some of them may come to think of revolutions. However, the function of revolution is just to overthrow the old establishment, and no more. If you destroy the intrinsically fragile building but rebuild it with the same blueprint, the problem remains.
How can we find the engineers and architects? If you don’t try to nurture one, you have none. Even you have overthrown the old establishment, you are still relying on the old structure. Why is it so? It is because everyone tries to avoid to be recognized as a guy who has his own opinion. Everyone depends on the established power structure. So whenever there is turmoil, no one knows how to tackle it. They can only pray for it not to happen, which is pessimistic and meaningless. There are seeds which are brave enough to challenge the power, for sure; but if there is no fertile soil for it to grow, they remain seeds forever. The point is to make the land suitable for the growing up of the seeds. The society relies on these seeds to face the turmoil at the time of challenge. This may lead to a better result. For those power lusters, they are nothing but morons when challenges knock the door. They are nothing once deprived of their powers on hand. They can do no more but to vent their angers and to indulge in the daydreams of a mighty empire.
So the point is how to improve and refine ethics and personality. Even the Japanese thinker, Fukuzawa Yukichi (福澤諭吉), knew this in a hundred years ago.
Failure in doing so can be more than the problem of that country. An example is the failure of the Taisho democracy (大正民主) experiment in the twenties of the 20th century. Japan fell from its climax back to militarism and devastated not only Japan, but China too. Never say “hey, I am not Japanese, so how corrupt of Japanese politics has nothing to do with me”, it does. So, to be frankly, my view on Chinese society is like this: even if I were a Vietnamese, I would wish Chinese society could evolve in a modern way, otherwise as a Vietnamese I would probably be a victim.