Monday, May 1, 2023

What does it mean when India overtakes China? There is more to becoming a world power than sheer numbers

First posted on Asia Times. As India is about to overtake China to become the most populous in the world, The New York Times promises a future series of articles speculating on how India might change the world as China has in the last 40-plus years. I am certain that India being the largest democracy in the world will be mentioned ad nauseam, but other considerations might be overlooked. I would like to provide a broader framework in the interest of a comprehensive discussion. As my teacher and good friend Martin Jacques has repeatedly argued, China is a civilization state unlike any nation as defined by the West. India can also be considered a civilization state, but with major differences. In the 3rd century BCE, China had a brutal and cruel leader with a vision that united all seven warring states. Qin Shi Huang became China’s first emperor. He standardized the spoken and written language, the currency, the weight and other measures and even the width of the wagon axles on the roads. He wanted to live forever, but at least his legacy survived. A national identity Most important, the first emperor established a national identity for all the ethnic peoples living in China. In time, these people responded to the Chinese culture and assimilated into the Chinese way of life, gradually discarding their own original heritage. Today, we say China is made up of nearly 92% ethnic Han, the remainder being 50-some other identifiable minorities. Actually, the Han Chinese are made up of a mixed gene pool of many other tribes that have faded into history. There is no “purebred Chinese” per se. Missing in India’s history is that one strong unifying figure to rally the disparate groups of people and establish a national identify. India still recognizes 16 official languages along with other unofficial ones, and people many cannot communicate with another. Contrary to popular impression, only 10% of the population can speak English. The closest to a national identity is the one imposed by the British rule on the Indian subcontinent for nearly 100 years between the 19th and 20th centuries. The Brits, of course, were not there to construct an Indian identity. They were there to exploit, colonize and enslave the indigenous people. Consequently, Indians today have a much weaker sense of who they are as compared with the Chinese. It’s harder for them to know their ethnicity, other than the idea of attaining the mythical stature of a white Aryan as nirvana. India continues to be hobbled by the caste system, a legacy of its culture. This means that by virtue of their parentage, more than 300 million Indians will be socially stigmatized and economically marginalized with no hope of realizing their potential. Their children and grandchildren suffer the same fate. Caste system is India’s worst obstacle Another reflection from the mindset of the caste system is that India’s elite schools are reserved for the privileged few. Quality of the non-elite universities is not high. Most, especially women, cannot get into India’s better schools for lack of seats. China has about four times as many universities as India, and some have been placed among the world’s top 100 institutions of higher learning. Functional literacy is over 90% in China and about 60% in India. In Chinese culture, education is life’s highest priority. The difference in the two countries’ systems of government is one the West loves to extol. India is the world’s largest democracy, while China is not a (Western style) democracy. What is that supposed to mean? From my perspective, India is constrained by all the limitations of a Western democracy. The government talks a lot but does not get much done. Corruption is rife at every level. The poor are condemned to stay poor. Come to think of it, it reminds me of another democracy, the United States. However, given its huge population, India can boast about its relatively small group of brilliant and talented people, those who are fortunate enough to have realized their full potential. One obvious example is the corps of business executives originally from India who are dominating corporate America. For India to realize its full potential as a nation, it needs to stop seeing itself as an Anglo-Saxon country, and join the Global South to contribute to the wealth and well-being of the coalition of people of color. India needs to raise the quality of higher education and open access to every citizen. Only by allowing every person the opportunity to realize his or her full potential can India become another emerging pillar of technology and industry. To create jobs for the growing body of educated youth, India needs to attract foreign investment. This means less red tape and a total absence of corruption, and, of course, prompt completion of infrastructure projects. Lessons from China Contrary to the Western idea that conflict is the way to peace, India should proactively approach China to resolve their border dispute. So silly to argue over a Line of Control drawn by a Brit more than a century ago (the McMahon Line). For India truly to overtake China and become a new emerging world leader, it would need to learn two essential lessons from China. One lesson, relatively easy to do, is to greatly improve the quality of education and boost the quantity of the workforce. The government then would have to eliminate corruption at every level and bureaucratic red tape to make foreign direct investment easy and attractive. FDI creates jobs and raises GDP. The second lesson, much more challenging, is to launch a cultural revolution on a scale that surpasses even the one in China, but with a constructive end-point rather than a destructive one. The objective of an Indian revolution is to truly eliminate caste, liberate women, and give all the opportunity to realize their potential.