India and China are neighbors with vexed relations. The most that can be said about them is that they share almost equal measures of mutual incomprehension.
But a recent study, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze examines India’s current development challenges and in doing so demonstrates that for all Beijing and Delhi’s differences, there share some interesting similarities.
This is because, with the exception of China’s political model, on almost every other count – from education, to healthcare, to poverty relief, and even social equity and gender relations –and Dreze portray China as a model that India should seek to emulate. Their argument is elegant and simple: China shows that delivering the fundamental goods of food, water, and education to the most disadvantaged citizens makes a massive difference across the whole of society. China now provides basic medical care to 95 percent of its citizens. Literacy is almost universal among men and women. Basic education is delivered even in the most isolated areas. None of this is true in India.
China has immense inequalities, but it has largely eradicated the kind of dehumanizing poverty seen too often in India and evidenced by the large amounts of data that Sen and Dreze present. This view of China raises some interesting questions about how Westerners see the achievements of the government. We are often preoccupied by stories of protests, and injustice in Chinese society, whether from human rights lawyers or rural protesters. These stories deserve attention, but they are only part of the picture. There has been immense progress in other areas, some of which contrast sharply with India.
The Chinese government has attempted to communicate these achievements, but is hampered by what Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell have called its extraordinary ability to shoot itself in the foot over its treatment of prominent human rights cases. One mishandled case like that of blind activist Cheng Guangcheng last year overshadows many tens of thousands of other good news stories about China’s development achievements for individuals across the country.
This is puzzling because the costs of treating these prominent cases in this way are so high for the Chinese government in terms of negative publicity, let alone their intrinsic injustice, and the risks that they in fact pose for the government. Would allowing a figure like to Liu Xiaobo remain at liberty really be such a threat to the government? Does anyone really believe he offers such a major issue for national security? Human rights are one area where the Chinese government is well behind India, which has a well-regarded albeit, slow judicial system in many cases.
This view of the different developmental experiences of the two great engines of growth of the emerging world, India and China, allows their contrasting cultures and polities to be put in a more meaningful context. The key fact is that China’s political system has helped raise living standards in the country, but may well hinder progress beyond a certain point.
After over six decades of experience, India has already achieved that difficult political transition. Does this mean that, despite its development challenges, India has better positioned it than China in the long run? This is one of the most intriguing and least discussed issues in modern geopolitics and development. And at the moment, it is impossible to answer.