Little more than a decade ago, Rowen's answer to the question posed by this essay's title was the year 2015. His assessment, published in the Fall 1996 issue of the National Interest, began by observing that all countries (leaving aside states that make nearly all their money from oil exports) which had attained a Gross Domestic Product per capita (GDPpc) of at least US$8,000 per year (as measured by the Purchasing-Power Parity or PPP standard for the year 1995) stood no worse than Partly Free in the ratings of political rights and civil liberties published annually by Freedom House (FH).
As China's economy was growing at a rate that promised to carry it to a level near or beyond that GDPpc benchmark by 2015, Rowen reasoned that this, the world's largest country, was a good bet to move into the Partly Free category as well. Since then, China has remained deep in Not Free territory even though its civil-liberties score has improved a bit -- from an absolutely abysmal 7 to a still-sorry 6 on the 7-point FH scale -- while its political-rights score has remained stuck at the worst level. Yet today, surveying matters from a point slightly more than midway between 1996 and 2015, Rowen stands by his main conclusion: China will in the short term continue to warrant a Not Free classification, but by 2015 it should edge into the Partly Free category. Indeed, Rowen goes further and predicts that, should China's economy and the educational attainments of its population continue to grow as they have in recent years, the more than one-sixth of the world's people who live in China will by 2025 be citizens of a country correctly classed as belonging to the Free nations of the earth.