China and India: whose century?
Everyone seems to be jumping on the “China or India” bandwagon. In recent months, major international publications, notably Time Magazine and the Economist, have produced features comparing the two Asian giants against a backdrop of stuttering growth in the developed economies.
The comparison seems a natural one: both are ancient civilisations in the process of regaining rightful positions of prominence in world affairs after a hiatus of several centuries. Both have enormous populations and abundant resources. As the two aspiring great powers spearhead what some call “the Asian century”, who will come out on top?
Many take the view that China will soon be, or has already become, a superpower – at least in economic terms – having overtaken Japan as the second biggest economy in 2010. Others, such as Beijing-based blogger Lior Paritzky, take an even more positive stance, suggesting that China’s development miracle may serve as a model and example for the rest of the world in moving towards a more modern society.
Indian blogger Arjun Swarup takes a decidedly more sceptical view of China’s growth story. With its empty skyscrapers and brand new highways to nowhere, China’s “economic waste” and persistent export dependence have created the conditions for an inevitable economic crisis, which would trigger massive unemployment and a severe contraction in GDP. For all the talk of China’s blossoming middle class, Swarup also points out that large numbers of Chinese still remain trapped in abject poverty.
India’s relative openness compared to China has long been held up as a reason for a long-term view that “the elephant” will eventually triumph over “the dragon”. Responding to Time’s reservations about China, however, Indian blogger Maitreya Bhakal has little time for the argument that internet censorship and reduced press freedom somehow stifle entrepreneurialism and innovation. A Chinese citizen hoping to launch a tech startup, he argues, will not be hindered by his or her inability to run a search on the Dalai Lama.
The demographic issues facing both countries provide some indication of future performance, as laid out by the WSJ’s India Real Time. India’s faster population growth and considerably younger population appear to give rise to a demographic advantage, further heightened by China’s over 30 years’ adherence to a one-child policy, that could make a difference in the decades to come as China’s population ages and India’s youthful labour market expands.
With the issue often framed as a two-horse race to be champion, there remain significant challenges ahead for both countries. Yao Yang, Director of the China Center for Economic Research at Peking University, sees trouble ahead for China, citing a raft of potentially problematic issues. These include the impact of the eurozone crisis, the effects of domestic tightening to cool property markets, persistently excessive state control over resources and increasing income inequality.
Likewise, as former Indian finance minister Jaswant Singh points out, India faces its own set of problems. Last year witnessed a rapid collapse in financial markets, a significant decline in manufacturing, rising inflation and pervasive corruption, underpinned by existing problems of governance, poor infrastructure and income inequality worse even than China’s. With his analysis, Singh seems to imply that without substantial leadership changes, last year’s annus horribilis will turn into a prolonged and damaging crisis.
Will the 21st century ultimately be remembered as China’s century or India’s? Writing in the Financial Times, Hong Kong-based Chandran Nair, author of the book Consumptionomics, thinks “neither”. Even if China and India become economic powerhouses, he argues, they will not be able to dominate global politics the way the West – particularly the US – did in the 20th century. “The next century will not be Asia’s – or anybody’s,” he concludes.
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Bio Note : Chris Wilkins, raised in Hong Kong, is an assistant editor at the Fung Global Institute. He has varied experience in law, research, public affairs, copywriting and communications.