For many years, Western leaders have couched the argument for greater political openness and democratization in China in moral terms, citing the universality of both human rights and the aspirations for freedom and independence. In May, defending her decision to help the Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng, Secretary Hillary Clinton told Chinese leaders, "We continue to look to China to meet its international obligations to protect universal human rights and fundamental freedoms." But even Western-educated intellectual elites in China don't think that this would benefit them or their country; Chinese leaders, schooled in the ideology of Marxism and Leninism, believe it even less.
The reason is a deep gulf of values. The Chinese have a utilitarian concept of "rights" -- that they should advance the greatest good for the greatest number of people -- in contrast to the Western view of rights as protections against encroachments on the disenfranchised few. Even the most critical of Beijing intellectuals would acknowledge that Chen's and other dissidents' ideas resonate only with a tiny percentage of China's 1.3 billion people.
It's time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China's political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security -- even for top Communist Party officials. This performance-based argument will resonate with many of China's economic and intellectual elites and may have a chance to influence the thinking of Xi Jinping and his fellow top officials.
But first, it's necessary to dispel the widespread myth that China's current political and economic system is uniquely responsible for China's growth. Yes, in the last 30 years, China has done a remarkable job of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, but we must keep this achievement in perspective. One reason the post-Mao leadership lifted so many people out of poverty is because Mao Zedong kept so many Chinese poor. (In 1979, showing remarkable candor, the Chinese Communist Party itself publicly acknowledged that per capita grain consumption of Chinese remained stagnant between 1957 and 1978.) Second, the poverty threshold is commonly defined as living under $1 a day. Living above that line is an improvement -- not prosperity. Based on data provided by the World Bank in 2008, roughly 30 percent of China's population, or 390 million people, lived below $2 a day. By this measure, China has a comparable percentage of people living in poverty as Honduras, a country that never experienced China's rapid GDP growth.
Besides, China's overall performance in the last 60 years does not stack up well against its neighbors. Since World War II, the most successful economies have all been in East Asia: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. There are three exceptions to this East Asian rule of success: China, North Korea, and Mongolia. The first two are led by communist parties, while Mongolia was communist from 1924 until 1993. So the appropriate question is not why China has grown so fast in the last 30 years, but why it is still so poor compared with other countries in the region.
In any case, China's growth after 1978 is by no means historically unique. Between 1912 and 1936, China's industrial economy expanded rapidly; estimates put the number at an annual rate of between 8 and 13 percent a year. Back then, unlike China today, the private sector played the leading role in economic growth. Many banks were privately owned. Political control was tight but not nearly as authoritarian as it is now. That era of growth was cut short not by the intrinsic shortcomings of the system, but by the Japanese invasion in 1937 and the subsequent civil wars.
For all the focus today on skyscrapers and fancy cars, China's economic rise was most beneficial to the average person in the 1980s, when Chinese politics were at their most liberal. During that decade, three reformist leaders -- Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang -- not only undertook economic reforms, but also initiated meaningful political ones, including putting term limits on officials, separating functions of the state from those of the party, and instituting rural elections. Back then, China had none of the huge imbalances that it does now. The consumption to GDP ratio remained high, by Chinese standards, at 50 percent, compared with 35 percent today. China's exchange rate was overvalued and it posted trade deficits year after year. Above all, personal income growth, especially among China's 800 million peasants, substantially exceeded China's GDP growth during the 1980s. There was no tradeoff between political liberalism and economic growth.