Categorized | South Asian Politics

China or India? A contest of models

Posted on 30 March 2012 by admin

Gautam Adhikari


China’s political model is superior to the western liberal democratic one, Chinese intellectuals have begun to argue openly. Eric X Li of Shanghai, for instance, wrote in The New York Times (February 16) that America’s competition with China is between two giants that have fundamentally different political outlooks. America sees democratic governance as “an end in itself”, while China sees its current model “as a means to achieving larger national ends”.

To us Indians living next door to China, that difference has relevance.       

Indians see yet another fundamental contest between giants – between two billion-strong nations, each striving for prosperity and the eradication of poverty – using two very different models of governance. China’s model today, visibly the more impressive, resembles not socialism with Chinese characteristics, as the late Deng Xiaoping used to say, but an immense pyramid of state-corporate capitalism. The communist party is a holding corporation at the top, while the politburo acts as a board of directors managing the system through a vast network of subsidiaries.

Today’s China is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. Its economy is intricately meshed in the world’s economy. Its exports flood world markets like the Soviet Union’s never did. Its three trillion dollars-plus stockpile of foreign exchange reserves makes it way more influential in real terms than the Soviet Union’s huge but effectively idle pile of nuclear weapons ever could. China’s management model not only helps it acquire influence, it attracts a growing fan club in other developing countries.    

India’s democratic model of governance, on the other hand, is far less impressive at first sight. It is messy, it is corrupt, its coalitional politics (think Mamata) impels its political managers to be indecisive and its poverty is out there for the world to see.      

Many from India’s rapidly expanding and impatient middle class, frustrated with bureaucratic inefficiencies in the delivery of public goods and services, have begun to look admiringly over the fence at the Joneses in China. Yet, a close look at the Indian model reveals economic growth over the past decade at an average annual rate of around 7%. Could be better, but second only to China’s among major economies. Democratic governance, however deficient, hasn’t crippled that performance. Poverty remains agonisingly visible but the number of millions lifted above ‘absolute poverty’ in the past two decades is, again, second only to China’s record. Democracy is a bit slow, but it works.    

Citizens of India, irritated as they are with the pace of change, still have powers that the Chinese don’t. They, and not any cabal of party bosses, form the national board of directors. They can, and do, throw out any ruling management through regular elections while freely airing frustrations through the media. 

They did it once again in recent state elections. They might fret that all they can do is replace a bunch of thieves with a gang of thugs. But the very fact of their electoral power is extraordinary. It generates, on the whole, a decent degree of accountability in the system. And that’s the case for democracy being made in a few recent books.   

In Democracy Despite Itself, Danny Oppenheimer and Mike Edwards assert that free, fair and regular elections form the fundament of democracy, no matter what the quality of governance might be in a particular country from time to time. Nations that choose their rulers freely have more overall freedom and a higher quality of life than those that don’t. In Why Nations Fail, DaronAcemoglu and James Robinson caution that weak, dysfunctional institutions provide incentives to a parasitical elite in an “extractive state” to loot national wealth, which has been the dominant pattern in history. But where a truly inclusive government emerges, through electoral democracy, it can protect individual rights, encourage investment and reward effort to allow prosperity to follow.      

So, while a contest continues between China’s state-corporate model and the western liberal democratic one, the world should keep an eye on the quieter rivalry over governance models between the world’s two largest nations. Ultimately, it is a contest over values and human rights: Must an individual have inalienable rights or should such rights be conditional upon social advancement as decreed by the few?

Courtesy: The Times of India

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