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A liberal autocracy is a non-democratic government that follows the principles of liberalism. Until the twentieth century, "most countries in Western Europe were liberal autocracies, or at best, semi-democracies." One example of a "classic liberal autocracy" was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to Fareed Zakaria, a more recent example is Hong Kong until July 1, 1997, which was ruled by the British Crown. He says that until 1991 "it had never held a meaningful election, but its government epitomized constitutional liberalism, protecting its citizens' basic rights and administering a fair court system and bureaucracy." F.A. Hayek contended that the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile was also a liberal autocracy, claiming that he had "not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende." However, the historical record and many accounts by other observers indicate otherwise, citing the human rights abuses and suppression of civil society that occurred during Pinochet's rule.
The existence of real liberties in many of these autocracies is very questionable. Nineteenth century autocracies often abolished feudal institutions like serfdom, guilds, privileges for the nobility, and inequality before the law. However, freedom of speech and freedom of association were at best limited. As such, liberal autocracy often preceded various forms of electoral democracy in the evolution of these nations, being much more open than feudal monarchies but less free than modern liberal democracies.
Hong Kong is arguably a special case, where during the latter stages of British colonial rule there was considerable freedom of speech and freedom of association, but also the common knowledge that China would not allow an independent state with free elections.