Posted in The World Beyond

China and India: Two roads diverged…

There is a lot of talk in New Delhi and among the Government’s globe-trotting enthusiasts, about following the China Model for India’s development especially on two fronts: infrastructure development, and the manufacturing sector. However, let us pause a moment:

If China runs 4 of the 10 fastest trains in the world – there is a reason…

If just one District in China produces 50% of what the world buys, there is a reason…

And I admit I am very partial to looking for reasons in the pages of history, rather than among the political rhetoric of an election campaign. So here goes…

China and India have had somewhat similar histories, with civilizational continuity stretching back thousands of years. Both have had centuries of hierarchical social systems, with a very low status for women. Both suffered at least a century of humiliation at the hands of foreign traders, conquerors and colonizers before breaking free; and both became modern, independent nation-states at roughly the same time – 1949 and 1947. Both countries also suffered the trauma of partition/fragmentation at the time of independence – Taiwan broke away from China, while Hong Kong became a British dominion; and India was cleaved into two with the creation of Pakistan.

However, it is after emerging as independent nation-states that the trajectory of these two Asian giants completely diverges:

    • While India opted for democracy; China chose the Marxist ‘proletarian’ road
    • While India chose centralized planning and governance as the route to development, China built up from the grassroots, village committee level
    • Political power in India flows from the top downwards, through a series of patron-client relationships; in China it rises from the village, to district, to regional capital to Beijing in the pyramidal structure of the Communist Party
    • As an eminent Indian historian once noted, India alone of all the newly independent colonies had the audacity to launch not one but 5 simultaneous revolutions – agricultural, social, national, industrial and urban. Naturally these varied revolutions could not keep pace with each other and after over six decades, India’s development directions still remain hazy. China meanwhile had no such ambiguities when it launched its Cultural Revolution, with the sole aim of tearing apart the fabric of the old feudal society and weaving it anew into a more modern, rationalist, pragmatic, egalitarian and secular pattern.

It is ironic indeed that at the height of its Cold War with the Soviet Union, the West could only denounce and rant at the ‘excesses’ of this Cultural Revolution, and did not see in these excesses the seed of China’s future success – which the same West now admires so much. But as any neutral observer will tell you, perhaps it is these very ‘excesses’ which have made the Chinese miracle possible today.

So what exactly were these transgressions?

At the risk of being facetious, one can summarise them under the 4 Ls:

Love: The most obvious excess was interference in the personal and family life of the population by enforcing restrictions (unique in human history) culminating in 1979, in the single-child norm.

Land: The collectivization of all rural land, with ‘possessory rights of usufruct’ for 30 years; and the acquisition of all urban land by government (with a lease of 70 years to developers) were also considered as ‘excessive’ especially by the erstwhile feudal landlords.

Lord: The outlawing of feudal lords on the one hand, and the abolition of religions loyal to a higher ‘Lord’ on the other, were quite repugnant to the rest of the world, and found to be violative of human rights and basic freedom of religion – never mind that the West was equally callous about the rights and freedoms of communists and atheists in their midst.

Learning: This was the most far-reaching ‘excess’ of the Cultural Revolution, as schools of higher learning were closed and there was a deliberate process of dismantling the Western-educated elite. Intellectuals were put to the most demeaning physical labour in the countryside and told to adapt their knowledge to serving the peasants. These reforms also meant the end of the privileged civil service – after all, the word for bureaucrats everywhere comes from the Chinese word ‘mandarin’. It also cleared the decks for a complete revamping of the higher education system and its indigenisation to meet China’s immediate development needs.

As argued above, the Cultural Revolution put China on a path to development, while India was still floundering and experimenting amidst priorities that changed every five years – in the name of democracy. China’s focussed single-mindedness and its willingness to sacrifice today for prosperity tomorrow, set against India’s vacillations and contradictions are succinctly summarised in the chart below, showing the time lag between China’s achievement of a human development goal, and the number of years it did so ahead of India. (Courtesy: The Economist)

India China

For example, a child’s odds of surviving past their fifth birthday are as bad in India today as they were in China in the 1970s. Similarly, India’s income per head was about $3,200 in 2009 (holding purchasing power constant across time and between countries). China reached that level of development nine years earlier. This does not necessarily imply that India in 9 years’ time will be as rich as China is today. That is because China grew faster in the last nine years than India is likely to grow over the next nine.

Let us now look at the ways in which China’s excesses of the 1960s, became the keystone of its successes in a globalised world, once Deng Xiaoping opened its doors to the world:

  • The Single Child Norm has helped to stabilise China’s population growth while India is all set to overtake it in the next few decades. This stabilisation has greatly increased opportunities for the individual, leading to greater equity. Moreover, it has at one stroke halved the incidence of poverty and thus broken the vicious cycle of deprivation in a single generation, while India continues to struggle with endemic and chronic poverty.
  • The collectivisation of rural land has made agriculture more productive through economies of scale, and provided rural livelihoods that are more sustainable, because a collective has better coping strategies in a crisis than an individual or a household. The lack of individual land ownership also makes rural society more egalitarian and less exploitative; and rural politics more participatory. In India, the absence of redistributive justice in land ownership is now acknowledged as the major cause of the insurgency in its predominantly tribal areas.
  • Similarly, the urban land in China is entirely owned by the Government, and this has allowed proper urban planning, redevelopment, infrastructure development and affordable housing, whereas in India, no Development Plan gets more than 20% implemented because of the difficulties of land acquisition, and the inevitable litigation through India’s tortuous judicial system.
  • According to some estimates, over 70% of Chinese are listed as being atheist or agnostic, while the remaining follow Shenism-Taoism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Aspirants to the membership of the Communist Party have to affirm their atheism if they wish to progress in their political careers. The most obvious fall-out of this policy has been the true secularisation of Chinese society, with formerly religious practices being reduced to general public holidays, and State and religion being kept strictly apart. This too contributes to the pervasive egalitarianism in Chinese society. It also means that there are no constraints like caste on the opportunities available to Chinese students, whereas caste and related affirmative action programmes continue to remain a political tinderbox in India.
  • The benefits of the Chinese Revolution are most visible in the way the country raises and educates its children. The first major reform was the standardisation of the written language (Mandarin-Beijing dialect) across the country. Then, there was universal literacy and mass education, and eventually with a new higher education system geared to the country’s development needs, we see massive vocationalisation with an emphasis on technology in higher education.
  • Today, there are no less than 4 Chinese and 4 Hong Kong based institutes/universities in the Asian Top-25, and not a single one from India. Higher Education in China has rapidly adapted to the global trend of internationalism, duly followed by indigenisation of the knowledge gained. This means that the Chinese technocratic class is now geared to move from re-engineering western technology to innovation in its own right, and are encouraged through government investment to set up businesses in China itself. Contrast this with India, where IITs and IIMs, funded entirely by the humble Indian taxpayer, compete with each other in how many alumni they have been able to place in foreign companies – preferably in the USA!
  • Another programme recently launched is the teaching of English in all urban schools from the first grade itself. Furthermore, by opting to invest heavily in manufacturing industry, China has found a place for its unskilled, semi-skilled, skilled, and highly skilled workers, all in the same business matrix. Whereas, by opting for hi-tech services such as IT, India can provide the best opportunities only to its best and most educated workers, further fuelling the social and digital divide in the country.

Therefore, we may safely conclude, that today’s China was born after a long and hard gestation, with thousands of lives lost and all the blood and thunder of revolution. They re-invented themselves. So must India – development is not a matter of simple ‘copy and paste’.

In my next post, I shall be focussing on urbanisation in China and lessons therefrom, for urban planners and managers in India.


I am a trainer of Government Officials and Elected Representatives, specializing in the urban and municipal sector. I have also written extensively on Urban Governance, Poverty, Development, Social Accountability and Municipal Management in the Indian context, and wish to share these writings with you through this blog.

2 thoughts on “China and India: Two roads diverged…

  1. Madam,The prevailing political system in India and political indifferences will not permit any immediate dramatic changes required for bridging the gaps between India and China. Each political party only plans for their survival in the next election. The changes brought by China in 1978 had yielded the anticipated results. Even if we start today it would take at least another 10 years. Utilizing the potential human resources has not been effectively planned.Economical imbalances between citizens prevails as such.

    Flow of capital resources for meeting the challenges of rapid urbanisation has got stuck in the last one year due to political changes. Cities which prepared City Development Plans anticipating JNNURM II do not have any idea on their fate. Mechanism to ensure flow of money from local resources to meet individual requirements without depending on State or Central Government need to be planned. Frequent legal interferences didn’t permit urban regulaions as planned. Not less than 100 cases are being filed in a month against Corporation for all legitimate issues. It is a tough time to run any administration. Lot of patience and tolerance required to achieve the goals panned for bringing reforms in the urban administration.

    Today a Shopping Mall was opened in Trichy and entire development, amusements were done using materials imported from China. No doubt that soon Indian Market would drive all Indian made products out. We have to bring another Swadeshi revolution. We need the clear direction to achieve economical sustainability. V . P. Thandapani
    Thank u Mm.


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