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An Indian perspective on China: Pallavi Aiyar

shaolin abbot and me.jpg
Author Pallavi Aiyar with a Shaolin Monk

Pallavi Aiyar, China correspondent for The Hindu and author of the new book 'Smoke and Mirrors', answers some questions about India and China.

You can read an excerpt from the book on Danwei here.

Q: What is India doing well in terms of development, and bringing prosperity to its people? And China? And what are the two countries doing badly?

A: Well, both are experimenting with economic reforms although the pace and scope of these reforms differs. One of the greatest lacunae in India is administrative reform, so that we have a bloated administration that is not held to account for its shoddy implementation of legislation intended to help the poor. In China on the other hand, it’s the lack of political reform that hampers accountability.

But to answer this question beyond superficialities one needs to first look at the issue of how the state in the two countries derives its legitimacy. In India legitimacy is derived from process while in China, it’s increasingly drawn from performance. In India, the process of getting elected and the fact that citizens participate actively in the political process provides governments with their legitimacy. Ironically, the result is that once in power performance is not always as important for a government as the fact of having been elected. In other words the means (of getting elected) become more important than the end (of good governance as defined by delivery of public goods etc).

Nonetheless, in a country like India, where so many have historically been deprived of a voice, this “process” of political participation has real value. It also helps create an underlying political stability. For decades western political scientists have been predicting a balkanization of India on the basis of the argument that the country lacks a centre/coherence. However, against all odds, India has proved the pessimists wrong. Today, democracy as a political process is so entrenched in the country and culture that a question mark no longer hangs over its political future. As a result India is able to withstand major external and internal shocks without fear of implosion or explosion.

In post-Mao China on the other hand, the legitimacy of the CCP is increasingly tied to its ability to deliver economic growth. The party has thus emerged as a pragmatic and goal oriented entity rather than one driven by ideology. Its authoritarian nature has moreover allowed the ends to justify the means. Compared to India, China’s economic reforms have thus been more consistent and less liable to be hijacked by special interest groups (like organised labour- which in India accounts for less than 5 percent of the labour force but has successfully obstructed any kind of labour reform till today).

The fact that the CCP does not rule in coalition (in India there are well over a dozen parties in the current Congress-led ruling coalition) and is also not circumscribed by time limits to its stint in power, allows Beijing to draw up and develop long-term strategies for the country’s development. In India, the all-consuming focus on elections and extreme populism of political parties combined with the extremely narrow agenda of many of the single-issue caste and other parties means that long-term coherent strategies for developing the country are far more difficult to draft and even harder to implement.

Finally, China started its reform process from a social base that was much more advanced than India’s. By 1978 China’s literacy and health care parameters were already far superior to India’s so that despite its contemporary challenges in the fields of education and health, Beijing’s record trumps that of New Delhi’s.

To put it crudely: what India does badly is deliver public goods like water, electricity and primary schools where teachers actually show up. China’s greatest failure on the other hand is its inability to manage dissent and diversity. Its propensity to ignore or criminalize dissenting opinions ultimately leaves the country with a question mark over its political future; one that India for all its surface anarchy no longer has. China’s ability to withstand a major external or internal shock is untested and the result is less certain than in the case of India. China’s political future is thus less secure than India’s.

Q: Can India learn from China's development experience and vide versa, or are the two countries just too different in culture, ethnic make-up, geography and history to make comparisons worthwhile?

A: Comparisons between the two are worthwhile up to a point, as long as it is kept in mind that superficial similarities aside India and China are not only different in terms their modern political avatars, but have historically been very different cultures. India’s philosophical and cultural underpinnings were steeped in metaphysics, ontology and epistemology forming major intellectual planks of Hinduism/Buddhism/Jainism etc. Territorial integrity and notions of empire were much less central to India’s image of itself. As a result, the Indian civilization was more of a conceptual rather than geographic entity; less united territorially and politically than the Chinese empire.

In contrast, China was always more coherent territorially. Its empire was moreover underpinned by philosophies like Confucianism that tended less to the metaphysical and more to the practical, legalistic and political.

Nonetheless, both China and India can look to each other to learn from the other’s development experience, although it is not possible to directly apply these experiences in an unaltered manner to their very different realities.

India’s achievement in having constructed a sustainable and functional, albeit far from perfect, democracy is a formidable one. However Indian democracy is unfortunately often used by policy framers in India as an apology for the inability of governments to facilitate socio-economic development. That even an unrepresentative, authoritarian party wracked with contradictions like the CCP could have succeeded so well in improving the material lives of its citizens should be a matter of both shame and hope for India. Shame that on most scores of governance it had been bested by a dictatorship and hope that if a comparably large and poor country has been able lift millions out of poverty without the institutional stability of a democracy, then the same is certainly achievable for India.

Where the CCP differs from many other dictatorships in the world is that it cares about legitimacy and has made delivering economic growth the cornerstone of that legitimacy. What India’s political parties can truly learn from Beijing’s technocrats is thus to look beyond electoral validation to the delivery of growth and public goods as their ultimate, or at least penultimate, goal. To exhort Indian politicians to act selflessly for the good of the country may be hopelessly naïve, but this is where valuable lessons from the CCP can be drawn. The CCP is hardly a disinterested or charitable enterprise. However, it seems to have recognised that nakedly clinging to power will eventually prove self-defeating. If the ultimate goal was to remain in power, more than brute force and short-sighted profiteering are necessary. Long-term survival requires pragmatism, adaptability and above all a public that can link governmental policy with improved prospects for themselves or at minimum the next generation.

It is thus up to India to prove to the world that roads and democracy can coexist, even in the developing world. Already the country’s economic growth story in the new century is proving critics who hold democracy as inevitably obstructive to economic development in low-income countries, wrong. This is something China should take note of.

Moreover, what Beijing should also learn from India is that an embrace of diversity and plurality does not necessarily have to lead to national disintegration. Regional autonomy (as is for example the demand in Tibet) does not inevitably have to lead to a “splitting” of national sovereignty or territorial integrity.

Q: How do you see the balance of power in the region developing, with the complex web of relations between India, Iran, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma and China?

A: It’s certainly a time of considerable regional geo-political ferment with both India and China spreading their wings wider than before. China has a more coherent foreign policy in general. In India there is much less agreement on foreign policy goals.

China has basically been trying to win friends and influence governments across the area that India considers to be its strategic backyard – in SAARC countries including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Burma. China is investing heavily in many of these countries, undertaking major infrastructure projects and using its economic clout to build up its importance to these countries which in any case have long resented living in India’s shadow. For China this strategy allows it to achieve a variety of national strategic goals including securing sea routes for oil supplies from the Middle-East, access to a range of commodities like timber etc while simultaneously covertly limiting India’s emergence as a power of significance.

In India the Manmohan Singh-led Congress has shown a more pro-US tendency than any other previous Indian government. It has spearheaded the deal with the US on civilian nuclear energy and has participated in a new quadrilateral dialogue with the US, Japan and Australia. The quad initiative is widely seen as a coming together of democratic countries with the isolation of China as its ultimate, unstated end.

However, within India the traditional suspicion of the US remains strong, not least amongst the Left parties that have thus far wrecked attempts at pushing through the nuclear deal with America. There are also strong pro-China constituencies (again the Left parties). Thus any serious or overt strategic alignment with the US is not a likely scenario for India. New Delhi is also resentful of Washington’s prescriptive attitude towards Iran for example. India is determined to push ahead with a proposed gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan, regardless of US apprehensions.

As a result, Beijing and New Delhi find themselves on the same side of the fence when it comes to defending relations with what the US regards as pariah states (Burma is another example).

In the mean time China has emerged as India’s largest trading partner and both neighbours are keen to keep their ties on track. While there is rivalry between the two for power and resources, for the moment both are primarily internally focussed on their own domestic constituencies and growth. Neither wants outright confrontation, so that despite the simmering, as yet unresolved border dispute, military confrontation between India and China is a very dim possibility.

Q: Where will you live next? Why?

A: The story of my road to and in China has taught me to be open to all options. I came to Beijing only reluctantly – but thank god I did. Having a diplomat husband means that life is going to take me to several different parts of the world. While we will have some flexibility in choosing our postings sometimes they will be out of our hands. Looks like the next stop will be Brussels and given that I am currently seven months pregnant, I believe the title of my next book may quite possibility be “Babies and Brussels”! If given a choice, after China (and Brussels) I would like a longish stint in Turkey. Not only is the food great and the country fascinating on just about every conceptual, historical and physical parameter, but its future will be pivotal for both Europe and the world.

Q: How many Indians are there in China?

A: It’s difficult to give an exact number. There are around 1000 registered Indians in Beijing and twice that number in Shanghai. Large numbers (2-3,000) are also registered in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. But the really large concentrations of Indians are to be found in the market towns of Zhejiang and Jiangsu like Yiwu and Shaoxing. Shaoxing, jome to the world’s largest wholesale textile mart is thought to have upwards of 10,000 Indians- many of them on short-term business visas procured in Hong Kong.

While the majority of Indians in China are traders and businessmen, there are increasing numbers of students (upwards of 4,000 China-wide, mostly studying medicine), yoga teachers, restaurateurs, cooks and white collar employees at MNCs as well as Chinese companies (for example Huawei has between 300-500 Indians working at its headquarters in Shenzhen at any given point of time).

Q: In the book, you tell of several cultural misunderstandings when Indian and Chinese business people get together, especially over food. Is this changing? Do such cultural differences present a serious obstacle to the development of Sino-Indian trade?

A: Food is fundamental to culture and neither Indian nor Chinese take their gastronomy lightly. But it is also food that often leads to maximum amount of tension when Indians and Chinese get together. While in India elite Brahmins delineated their status by increasingly finickier food choices: no meat, no garlic, no onions, no non-vegetarians in the kitchen. In China, the greater the variety of things you can afford to eat, the meatier and the weirder, the higher your status.

In India, even non-vegetarians only eat certain animals and that too only certain parts of certain animals. So chicken is ok, but not chicken feet. Lamb is fine, but not the intestines. To an average Chinese such discriminations are mystifying. Over the years I’ve been a regular at banquets organised by Chinese hosts for visiting trade delegations from India and on occasion have had the unhappy task of trying to explain the requirements of a Jain (Jainism is an Indian religion) diet. Saying that the Jains in question do not eat root vegetables is so outside of the average Chinese person’s experience of the world that their eyes simply glaze over.

In India dietary restrictions are related to caste issues (eating certain foods is harmful to caste status and affects metaphysical considerations like afterlife and rebirth). This accounts for what to the Chinese is bizarrely rigid eating behaviour on the part of Indians.

Ultimately, all of this does impact trade and business ties for it means that Indians and Chinese are uncomfortable with the day-to-day customs of each other. Cultural fluidity is crucial to the ability of an individual or corporation to flourish in a foreign environment. Most Indian businesspeople in China however, suffer from an inability to transcend their ingrained habits. Unlike many Westerners for example, expatriate Indians in China tend to stay away from Chinese food, choosing to eat in Indian restaurants. Many do not learn something as basic as the ability to use chopsticks even after years in the country. Its small wonder then, that they find it hard to penetrate the intricacies of the country.

Q: Can you get a decent Indian meal in Beijing?

A: Yes! When I first moved to China in late 2002, there were only three or four Indian restaurants in Beijing, two of which served up combined Thai-Indian fare of dubious credentials. Much water has flown under the Ganga and Yangtze since then. Today, there are almost a dozen options to choose from when it comes to Indian food in the capital. The Taj Pavilion does excellent, if somewhat heavy, north Indian food. For decently priced south Indian there’s India Kitchen. For the cheap and cheerful there’s Mirch Masala on Nan Luo Guxiang. The Tandoor and Hazara are expensive but good…and then there is always my home where my Anhui-born Ayi, Ms Li cooks up the tastiest of samosas and chicken curries on demand!

There are currently 3 Comments for An Indian perspective on China: Pallavi Aiyar.

Comments on An Indian perspective on China: Pallavi Aiyar

hope that both country can make "corporation" more better...

So in summary, despite having a wonderful western style democracy, the Indian politicians are so focussed on the election process that they can't even deliver basic public goods. In contrast, the "dictatorship" in China demonstrates effective long-term benefits for the whole of their society.


On cross-cultural misunderstandings, how must the Indian caste system appear to the Chinese? There have been several cases here in Australia where male Indian and female Chinese international students have dated for an extensive period before the Indian guy returns home for a 'holiday' only for the Chinese girl to later find out that he actually went home to get married. It seems that being of the correct caste is still very important for Indian marriage, as well as playing a large factor in their democratic processes.

A very interesting and balanced article. Having lived in China and visited India, I think the crunch issue is infrastructure. Unless India can find a way of solving this problem, I do not think it will be able to fill the huge missing link in its development, a competitive manufacturing sector. India cannot grow on software and pharma alone.

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