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Monday, December 10, 2007

Tiger versus Dragon

Tiger versus Dragon: the debate hots up China is ahead on economic growth, but India's democracy and creativity could be its secret weapon, argues OneWorld UK's East Asia correspondent Nury Vittachi Quick: Name the huge Asian country which is set to become a dominant global economic force powered by the world’s largest population. Hands up all those who said China. The answer, actually, is India. China is set firmly on the road to having the world’s second biggest population; not the largest. That particular Number One Ranking is on its way from China to India, where it is due to arrive in about 20 years and settle for the foreseeable future. And the numbers don’t include India’s neighbour Pakistan, which is expected to become the fourth most populous country on the planet by 2050. Or put it this way: by 2050, India and Pakistan together will have more people (1.95 billion) than all the African countries put together (1.9 billion), according to the UN Population Division. Ah, India may be more populous than China, but it will never be richer, goes the argument, with east Asians waving copies of a 2003 issue of The Economist, the cover story of which was entitled: “China vs India: A Tiger Falling Behind a Dragon.” This debate has been raging for years, and more recent cover stories in Time and Newsweek, not to mention debates in thousands of Internet chatrooms, are keeping it burning brightly. The latest batch of fuel thrown onto the fire was India’s dramatic decision in the past week to allow a freer flow of cash — capital in economists’ jargon — in and out of the country. But while the most common analytical technique have been to compare growth figures of each nation’s gross domestic product, there are other measures, such as infrastructure, in which China is ahead, and personal freedoms, in which India is ahead. Arguably the most intriguing of these, although the hardest to pin down, is each country’s place in the race to create free, self-governing, independent societies. India is undeniably ahead on democracy, which is widely seen as a force which adds creativity and dynamism to an economy: but there are arguments as to whether this is an advantage or a disadvantage. Economists such as Thailand-based Dr. Marc Faber have said Chinese leaders can demonstrate that their imperviousness to individual rights is an advantage. If they want to clear a residential district and rebuild it as a business park, they go ahead and do it. Changes in public policy are implemented by rubber-stamp legislatures. In contrast, India follows a Western system of law, which has respect for property and individual rights—doing almost anything takes longer, and involves consultations, campaigns and potential delays. Yet at the same time a big-picture macro examination of historical development across the globe reveals that on large timescales, the opposite is almost always true: democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law are strongly associated with long-term, steady, sustainable economic growth. To give a concrete example, inflexible China may have a huge population and resource base, but its economy has only recently overtaken that of Britain – which is a tiny place in terms of population and resources, yet has an over-large portion of the economic dynamism associated with free societies. The other difficulty in comparing India and China is the entrenched emotion involved, with the two giants uncomfortably sharing a border. This is compounded by a lack of debating experience on the Chinese side. While Indians often engage in self-criticism, Chinese contributors to physical or virtual forums are conditioned never to criticise their motherland. “Very soon you will find out how far behind India will be,” threatens a writer who signs himself “Chinese” in a typical on-line forum on the topic. The present writer, whose immediate family is approximately 50 per cent south Asian and 50 per cent Chinese, may be better placed than most commentators to offer an unbiased view. In this regard, I offer the following informal, impressionistic and totally arbitrary list of comparisons: * Roads in Chinese cities get you where you are going; roads in Indian cities are often interrupted by bullocks, demonstrations or encampments. * In China, business visitors need a translator; in India, officials and business people are dazzlingly fluent in English. * Chinese hotels have a slick talent for fleecing guests; Indian hotels are friendlier but noticeably less efficient. * In China, officials know how their system works; Indian executives have more of a feel for how the world works. * Buildings are thrown up in China seemingly overnight; in India, they often take years to creep into place. * China’s bureaucracy seems more efficient than India’s on the surface, but is more mysterious and labyrinthine once you get under the skin. * In China, you feel your freedom is limited by government power; in India, you feel it is limited by corruption. * In China, people are nihilistic, unable to shape their own society; in India, people come across as empowered by the ballot box. * People in China come across as anxious and restless; in India, people are happier, comforted by religion and ritual. * Huge swathes of China are locked in a timeless, rural way of life; in this respect, India is exactly the same. It is impossible to referee this particular prize-fight: the variables are too many and too diverse. There are a number of commentators who say India’s rate of economic growth will overtake China’s as soon as 2008; there are at least an equal number who say that China’s will remain ahead indefinitely. Although I live in China, I cannot help but notice one intriguing factor: there’s a clear link between creativity and societal freedom. India has both, in large measure; China has neither. A case in point: only in humourless China could a pop record have been released entitled: “When I Grow Up I Want to be a Peasant.” It wasn't a hit.

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