SHANGHAI, China - The narrative was supposed to be different.
For decades, Western political experts have confidently predicted that China's embrace of capitalism would usher in freedom and democracy.
A growing middle class would clamour for greater representation. The country's economy wouldn't flourish without openness and the rule of law.
Besides - as The New York Times' Thomas Freidman might argue - investors would demand change. The markets would inevitably succeed where the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests had failed, and in the process a number of sticky geopolitical issues would simply fix themselves.
This line of reasoning justified Washington DC's stalwart policy of engaging China. Since the 1990s, successive administrations have overlooked concerns about trade issues, human rights, Tibet and Taiwan in favor of courting Beijing, removing barriers to commerce and even supporting World Trade Organization membership.
Yet in reality, China is hardly more democratic or free than it was two decades ago.
In recent months it has arrested scores of citizens for merely requesting that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) respect its own constitution. Last month, prominent blogger and investor Charles Xue (an American citizen) was arrested as part of a campaign against "online rumor mongers."
Calls by Party think tanks for greater internal democracy at the lower ranks of the CCP have been ignored by the top leadership. State media have published gleeful accounts of the failure of hard-won direct democracy in Wukan, Guangdong province, and pointed to the continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa as examples of the chaos that would ensue should the Party give up its grip on absolute power.
No, democracy has not rubbed off on China.
Instead, the country's leaders have embraced another grand Western political innovation: spin.
The Party has picked up on the power of modern public relations, and has deployed the art to assure its own survival. As academic Anne-Marie Brady wrote in her book, Marketing Dictatorship: "China has been modelling itself on many aspects of the West, though not the aspects that western liberal intellectuals like to boast of."
Brady traces this adoption of a form of Western-style PR to the mid-2000s, when Chinese officials took cues from the US government's response to the September 11 attacks and British prime minister Tony Blair's ‘spin doctoring' during the mad cow disease crisis of 2000-2001.
A key lesson: accept that not all coverage will be positive. Brady says the Blair model allows for a certain amount of "negative coverage" during a crisis to reduce "social tension." This approach can be seen in the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang province, when - instead of repeating the media blackout seen in the 2008 Tibetan unrest - the government actually set up an information office to "assist" foreign reporters.
"They try to control foreign journalists as much as possible by using this sophisticated PR work, rather than ban them," Professor Xiao Qiang of Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism told Newsweek at the time.
President of PR
No Chinese leader has adopted Western-style spin more than Xi Jinping, who ascended to the presidency in March 2013 in a choreographed, week long ‘leadership transition' event.
While Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping followed the Leninist playbook, favoring cults of leadership, Xi represents the culmination of over two decades of Chinese leadership who have picked up on the sophisticated spin endemic to US presidential politics.