Monday, May 12, 2003

China or India

Natalie Solent links to Chris Bertram talking about British school history textbooks playing down the extent of the catastrophe that was Mao's Great Leap Forward. This just makes me think of another bugbear of mine, which is that of the two countries that between them have more than a third of the world's population, why is it that China gets so much more press (and in some ways better press) than India? This is not to say that China deserves less press. I personally find the country fascinating, and I find it extremely interesting that a large portion of the world's manufacturing has moved to the southern coastal portion of China near Hong Kong.

However, when I think about the relatively success of the two countries, particularly with reference to the sorts of things that Natalie is talking about, an extremely fundamental question comes to mind, and that is "In which country would prefer to have spent the last 50 years?". It is a phenomenally easy question to answer. During the Cold War, India at times cosied up to close to the wrong side, India is too bureacratic, and for many years India adopted a foolish economic system of "self-reliance", that reduced the country's economic dealings with the outside world and consequently reduced economic growth very significantly. However, the country has had no mass starvation, and there has been no large scale repression of citizens. In the last ten years the economy has improved, the middle class has grown, and Bombay has grown to be one of the world's larger sources of popular culture. It hasn't been as big an economic success story as China (although when discussing this point, it is always worth remembering that most Chinese statistics are made up), but progress has been quite positive.

If you move on to the question "In which country would you rather live today?" the question is perhaps less clear cut, but the arguments in favour of India are still pretty strong. In terms of things like basic liberties, India is far ahead. (Obviously it is better to be rich or middle class in either country than poor in the other). There is less arbitrary authority in India, more freedom of speech, and a more accountable legal system. (These things are far from perfect, but I am comparing to China). India has political and legal institutions that are capable of evolving into the institutions that can support an advanced economy. It is highly questionable that China does. If China is ever to become a proper member of the modern world, at some point it has to cease to be an authoritarian state. As a minimum, this change will be painful. The worst case scenarios involve considerable bloodshed. (A relatively peaceful transition can perhaps be done. Smaller formerly authoritarian states such as South Korea and Taiwan have managed it. However, it is by no means assured). China's economy for the moment is helped by the country's relatively good infrastructure, which India lacks. However, an infrastructure building binge is actually a relatively short term deal, providing someone is willing to provide the capital. (China had the good fortune that in the 1990s, people were willing to provide the capital. The global economy is now much less full of people willing to do this). However, if the financial situation is right, it's a ten year project. However, I think it has to happen at some point. When it does, India is a country about which we should be enormously optimistic.

My main feeling I think is that India has managed to remain a democracy for the last 50 years, and that is no small achievement. The country deserves more credit that it gets for this.

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