October 15, 2009
Pallavi Aiyar, recently lived for over five years in China, speaks Chinese and has written a charming and engaging book seeing China through young Indian eyes. Smoke and Mirrors closes with her insights on China and India:
• India is good at software, China has hardware.
• India should learn from China to invest in infrastructure, while China should look to India’s financial and legal institutions.
• India needs the roads and China the democracy, but if China had democracy, perhaps it would not have the roads.
• Democracy is often used as an excuse in India to justify bad governance, just as India’s democracy is used as an excuse in China to carry on with its (relatively) efficient one-party dictatorship.
• India is the example of choice in China when it comes to pointing out the pitfalls of democracy, while in India those who admire China’s achievements also bemoan that they come only at the cost of democracy.
• Democracy, with its stress on consensus building, may have slowed down the decision-making process in India, but the institutional foundations it has secured should have made it easier rather than more difficult to govern well.
• A free media means that New Delhi enjoys better feedback mechanisms than Beijing. Solid checks and balances built in through independent institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Election Commission mean that, despite its chaotic appearance, India is probably better able to withstand sudden shocks than China.
• The CCP cares about legitimacy and has made delivering economic growth the cornerstone of that legitimacy. India’s political parties can learn from Beijing’s technocrats to look beyond electoral validation to the delivery of growth and public goods as a goal.
• It is up to India to prove that roads and democracy can co-exist, even in the developing world.
• China’s primary edge over India is that it began its economic reform from a social base, more advanced in terms of literacy, life expectancy, gender empowerment and dignity of labour.
• For India to catch up, building infrastructure will never be enough. Half of all Indian women still remain unable to write their own names.
• Were I to be able to ensure being borne even moderately well-off, I would probably pump for India over China. There are real pleasures and freedoms which are not confined to the elite. A tradition of argumentation is fundamental to India’s secularism and democratic polity, with wide-ranging implications for all sections of society.
• Were I to be borne poor, I would take my chances in authoritarian China, where despite lacking a vote, the likelihood of my being decently fed, clothed and housed, are considerably higher.