China's GDP growth over the 1990s and 2000s, however, has not been as beneficial to the average Chinese. Using Chinese GDP data to diagnose the health of the Chinese economy is a bit like peering into a building from an airplane; you need to move in closer to see what is really going on. Looking at measures of living standards is a better way to determine the health of an economy. China's total energy consumption, for instance, overtook that of the United States in 2009, but Chinese households only play a minor role in China's energy explosion. Personal electricity consumption as a share of total electricity consumption peaked in 2001, at roughly 14 percent (compared with about 38 percent in the United States). The rest is for industrial and commercial uses.
To put things in perspective: As of 2009, the electricity consumption of the average Chinese for personal purposes was 8 percent of that of the average American. This is nowhere near the 20 percent implied by the GDP per capita comparison. China has a lot of power -- the Chinese don't.
Digging deeper, one learns that Chinese household income growth has consistently lagged between 2 to 3 percentage points behind GDP growth each year over the last two decades. Average Chinese unambiguously live better lives today than they did when Mao died in 1976, but much of the GDP gains went to the government and corporate sector, not ordinary people.
A performance-based case for democracy is thus not about how to grow GDP faster but about how to distribute the gains equitably and efficiently. An unrestrained government will do what it does best -- feeding itself off of gains from growth. According to the calculations of Zhiwu Chen, a professor of finance at Yale University, total Chinese government revenue in 2007 was 5.7 times that of 1995, but urban income in 2007 was only 1.6 times that of 1995; for rural income over the same period, only 1.2 times. Facing budget shortfalls due to the slowdown this year, some local governments in China are now reportedly "pre-collecting" taxes for 2013.
Taxation without representation is one form of pilfering state resources; corruption is another. Some analysts believe that the Chinese people tolerate corruption in exchange for fast growth. This is a bit like saying that New Yorkers tolerated Hurricane Sandy. Fast growth maintains a façade of stability not because it has secured tacit complicity from the Chinese people, but because it has funded the instruments of repression. The Chinese government today spends more on maintaining domestic stability than on its military.
But this funding formula will crumble once the growth slows down. No country in the world is able to maintain genuine social stability through repression alone. Real stability comes from a sense of involvement in the political and civic affairs and decisions and from a wide consensus about how economic, social, and political opportunities and outcomes are and should be distributed in a society. In a word, democracy.
For China to open up politically, however its elites have to believe that it is in their interest to do so (which, indeed, it is). The West could start by pointing out how the rigged Chinese justice system is a danger even to the powerful. In a 1998 book, Gu Kailai, the wife of disgraced Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, criticized the U.S. system for being too obsessed with the rights of the defendants, compared with the swift justice of the Chinese system. This year, in an August show trial that lasted just one day, Gu was given a commuted death sentence for the murder of a British businessman. It's fair to assume that she probably wished for less of that judicial swiftness with her own neck on the line.
And it's not just Bo and Gu: China's one-party system has been terribly cruel to many of its own elites. In the past two decades, the party secretaries in three out of four most important local governments in China (Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing) have been toppled or jailed. Between 1949 and 2012, there have been six heads of the Communist Party. Three were abruptly forced out of power; one in blatant violations of the party's own procedures and one died under house arrest. Two of Mao's anointed successors died on the job: Liu Shaoqi was tortured to death and buried with a fake name, Lin Biao in a fiery plane crash when he tried to escape to the Soviet Union. One of Deng Xiaoping's sons was pushed out of a building and became a paraplegic. In 2007, a vice chairman of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, and a director of China's State Food and Drug Administration were executed. The history of the Chinese Communist Party is littered with violence and arbitrary justice meted out against its own kind. Limiting the power of the party should not be couched as a zero-sum outcome at the expense of the organization, but as a way to limit party's ability to harm its own.
Chinese political elites implicitly understand that democracies provide security of property and of persons. When ousted by Bo, Wang Lijun, the former police chief of Chongqing, did not turn to the Chinese Ministry of Justice but the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Other Chinese elites outsource their personal security by sending their family members to study and to reside in the United States; wouldn't they like a little more of that security closer to home? For democracy to work for China, it has to work for China's most powerful. There is no other way.