The old debate has taken a new twist with the publication of a new book which argues that Chinese authoritarianism is superior to Indian democracy
Shashi Tharoor | 09 Jul, 2015
In its first few decades after independence from Britain in 1947, India bore the burden of being seen as the global poster child for the virtues of democracy, in contrast to its giant neighbour, China, which turned into a Communist dictatorship in 1949. Till the 1970s it was widely argued that while both countries suffered the horrors of poverty, under-development and disease, India’s was the better model because its people were free to choose their own rulers.
As China surged ahead economically from 1978 onwards, however, the debate changed: it was now argued that China’s was clearly the superior economic performance, while India’s chaotic democracy held its people back from the efficient pursuit of prosperity. This was apparent across the board—in economics, infrastructure development and even sport.
The Beijing Olympics of 2008 showcased the basic difference in the two countries’ systems—the creative chaos of all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood versus the perfectly-choreographed precision of the Beijing Opening Ceremony. The Chinese, as befits a Communist autocracy, approached the task of dominating the Olympics with top-down military discipline. The objective of winning Olympic medals was determined, a programme (‘Project 119’) drawn up, the considerable resources of the state attached to it, state-of-the-art technology acquired and world- class foreign coaches imported. India, by contrast, approached the Olympics with its usual combination of amiable amateurism, bureaucratic ineptitude, half-hearted experiment and shambolic organisation. The result was that China proudly ranked first in the Olympic medal tally, with 51 gold medals and a total of 100. You had to strain your eyes past such step-children of the global family as Jamaica, Belarus, war-torn Georgia, collapsing Zimbabwe and even what used to be called Outer Mongolia before stumbling across India in 50th place, with three medals: one gold and two bronze. The prosecution rests its case.
And indeed the systems are dramatically different. If China wants to build a new six-lane expressway, it can bulldoze its way past any number of villages in its path; in India, if you want to widen a two-lane road, you could be tied up in court for a dozen years over compensation entitlements. When China built its Three Gorges dam, it created a 660-km long reservoir that necessitated the displacement of a staggering 2 million people, all accomplished in 15 years without a fuss in the interests of generating electricity; when India conceived its Narmada Dam project, aiming to bring irrigation, drinking water and power to millions, it has spent 41 years (so far) fighting environmental groups, human rights activists, and advocates for the displaced all the way to the Supreme Court, while still being thwarted in the streets by protestors of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, with a couple of Bollywood stars thrown in.
The flip side of India’s weakness is its strength: India has mechanisms to deal with dissent, whereas China’s suppression of politics could prove unsustainable in the long run, once a more educated populace begins to assert its rights.
The old debate has now taken a new twist with the publication by Daniel A Bell, an American professor once at Harvard but now at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, of the book The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 336 pages, $29.95), which argues that the authoritarianism intrinsic to China’s success is actually a viable model of governance which might in fact be superior to India’s (and the West’s) democracy.
Bell is surprised that more scholars haven’t focused on the first half of Winston Churchill’s famous observation, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He sees the remarkable economic success of an assortment of non-democracies in recent years as questioning Churchill’s conclusion. Certainly, countries like Singapore and China have prospered in recent decades through benign authoritarianism, built on what Bell calls ‘political meritocracy’.
While Amartya Sen famously demonstrated that famines don’t occur in democracies with a free press because their governments would be unable to ignore the suffering, Bell argues that China has also avoided famine and done better than democratic India on malnutrition. In other words, you don’t have to be democratic to serve your people effectively.
Bell focuses on the methods for choosing political leaders in both systems of government and suggests that the authoritarian selection processes, based strictly on merit, guarantees better leadership than the random enshrining of ignorance and prejudice in democratic voting. China’s economic success can be attributed, he says, to the way it selects, evaluates and promotes officials, starting with an examination system that is both fair and merit-based and therefore ‘morally desirable’. Despite some weaknesses (notably complacency and corruption), it ensures orderly governance and development, which democracy doesn’t necessarily do, thanks to the limitations of the one-man, one- vote system. The ‘politically relevant question,’ he says, ‘is whether democratic elections lead to good consequences.’
It’s a question India debated once before, exactly 40 years ago, when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency in 1975, suspended India’s civil liberties, locked up the opposition leadership and censored the press. She argued explicitly then that democracy in India had detracted from the focus on development that was the nation’s duty. The issue became known as the ‘bread versus freedom’ debate: the question of whether democracy can literally deliver the goods in a country of poverty and scarcity, or whether its inbuilt inefficiencies only impede the prospects of rapid growth.
That debate was resolved in India by the General Election of 1977, which defenestrated the Emergency regime and restored democracy. But the question has not gone away, and the dysfunctional politics of democratic India in recent years has made it seem even more relevant. Is the instability of political contention, and of makeshift coalitions, a luxury that a developing country cannot afford? When, for a quarter of a century, India was ruled by governments in Delhi made up of over 20 political parties, political decision-making was determined by the lowest common denominator: the weakest link in the governmental chain determined its strength. The threat of withdrawal from a coalition was enough to persuade a government to abandon a policy it otherwise thought wise. Is that an efficient way of ensuring the well- being of the Indian people? Is political freedom less valuable to the masses than bread? Or to put it bluntly, is the Chinese answer to this question more appropriate than the Indian one?
I am not persuaded that Bell’s affirmative answer is the right one. While rapid industrialisation and development has pulled millions of Chinese out of poverty, it has often come at great cost in human suffering. China may have grown at breakneck speed—but it has broken necks in the process.
Today development and democracy as concepts are being redefined. Development is increasingly seen as a process which ensures a general betterment of the lives of the people—not just impressive infrastructure or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) numbers, but a qualitative improvement in the daily lives of a large part of the population. This is usually measured in the growth of per capita income as well as the fulfilment of the political, social and economic rights of the majority. Democracy is being increasingly seen as a foundation for development, one which goes beyond mere economic growth, and as a tool which delivers better governance, which in turn leads to a better quality of life for ordinary people.
Whatever one might say about India’s sclerotic bureaucracy versus China’s efficient one, India’s tangle of red tape versus China’s unfurled red carpet to foreign investors, India’s contentious and fractious political parties versus China’s smoothly- functioning top-down Communist hierarchy, there’s no doubt that India has become an outstanding example of the management of diversity through pluralist democracy. Every Indian has been allowed to feel he or she has as much of a stake in the country, and as much of a chance to run it, as anyone else: after all, the General Election of 2004 was won by an Italian- born woman of Roman Catholic heritage, who made way for a Sikh to be sworn in as Prime Minister by a Muslim President, in a nation 81 per cent Hindu. And our largest state was ruled three times by a Dalit woman, from a community once considered ‘untouchable’. She wasn’t promoted by the Brahmin elite in New Delhi; she rode to the top on the ballots of her political base.
Contrast this with Beijing, where political freedom is unknown, leaders at all levels are handpicked from the top for their posts, and political heresy is met with swift punishment, house-arrest or worse. During the Beijing Olympics, under international pressure, China designated a few areas where protestors could, in theory, gather peacefully; but you had to apply for permission to protest, which was never granted, and most of those who applied were arrested and detained, which meant that the authorisation of protest became an excellent method for the security police to identify potential trouble- makers without having to actually look for them.
India’s politics means its shock-absorbers are built into the system; it has endured major road-bumps without the vehicle ever breaking down. In China’s case, it is far from clear what would happen if the limousine of state, purring along under cruise-control, actually encountered a serious pothole: the axle might snap. The present system wasn’t designed to cope with fundamental challenges to it except through repression. But every autocratic state in history has come to a point where repression was no longer enough. If that point is reached in China, all bets would be off. The dragon could stumble where the elephant can always trundle on.
India’s economic liberalisation in 1991 and subsequent years of record growth occurred despite fractious democracy, coalition governments and a decade in which different political parties each had a turn at power. Our institutions, both formal and informal, allowed economic reforms to reach the lowest rung of the population, helping us pull millions above the poverty line and allowing them to climb the social and economic ladders to a life of better quality. The country has visibly prospered, and despite population growth, per capita income has grown faster and higher in each of these years than ever before.
The legitimacy of democracy in India comes from the faith of the vast numbers of underprivileged rather than the minuscule elite. It is the poor who turn out in large numbers to vote, because the poor know that their votes matter. They also believe that exerting their franchise is the most effective means of demonstrating what they really demand from the government. Frustration with government manifests itself in voting against the rulers rather than in revolts or insurrections. When violent movements arise, they are often defused through accommodation in the democratic process, so that in state after state, yesterday’s militants become today’s chief ministers—and thanks to the vagaries of democracy, tomorrow’s leaders of the opposition.
The Indian example proves that democracy can manage the most complex societal systems with dexterity to create and execute policies which have far reaching effects, without disrupting either society or state. The Chinese examination system may be meritocratic, but so is the UPSC exam. The difference is that the IAS topper runs the machinery of government but leaves the policy-making to those chosen by the people to guide their destiny.
The Chinese system is purely bureaucratic. It only permits gradual and graduated ascent, making it impossible for a young and relatively inexperienced but exciting leader like Barack Obama to emerge. It would fail to pick gifted leaders who were failures in their youth, like FDR, Lincoln or for that matter Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. Rebels and non-conformists like Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal and Bihar’s ‘Backward Class’ champion Lalu Prasad would never have got to first base in the Chinese system.
Amartya Sen has persuasively argued over the years that democracy as a system of government is in fact a form of public reasoning, the outcome of which emerges through elections. Democracy’s special strength is its responsiveness to the needs of the people, rather than merely the wishes of the rulers.
The Chinese model denies its citizens a say in the kinds of policies the nation should pursue, and eliminates any possibility of mediating among competing value systems, ideologies and political and economic choices. Politics is about more than efficient management—it is also about representing different segments of society and accommodating their views and interests. This, only democracy can do.
Democracies have also historically been better at innovation than authoritarian systems, which are obliged to stifle original thought. No wonder China is the world capital of counterfeiting, while Indians, whether in Silicon Valley or the Deccan Plateau, create exciting new products. So a Hyderabad company invented the iPod and Chinese factories manufactured it. China’s GDP grew faster, but who created greater value?
The former Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew once said: “I believe what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to indiscipline and disorderly conduct which are inimical to development.” These were the assumptions adopted by the East Asian countries.
Is China’s extraordinary growth story due to its authoritarian government or its skilled and hard-working population, which attracted considerable foreign investment in an export-centred model of development? Non-democracies may indeed develop and flourish, but not merely because they are not democratic. Other factors have helped China that have nothing to do with the lack of freedoms in its politics.
Bell cites the successes of authoritarian systems but does not acknowledge that these successes do not require authoritarianism. The methods employed by China and the other East Asian ‘tigers’ to promote economic growth and development— which include economic competition, use of international markets, spread of education and land reforms—have in fact been consistent with democratic principles. And even as the East Asian economies have grown richer, the desire of their people to experience more democratic freedoms has also deepened. As a result, many formerly authoritarian states in East Asia have become democracies at no cost to their development success stories. And no people who have gained democratic rights have clamoured for a return to the blessings of dictatorship, a clinching refutation of the Bell view.
In any case, though it is still far away from democracy, its free economic system has made China a more open country today, and greater popular participation in economic and gradually political decision making is already beginning to happen.
Indian democracy is a strength, not a weakness. India’s strength is that it has preserved an idea of itself as one land embracing many—a country that endures differences of caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, conviction, costume and custom, yet still rallies around a democratic consensus. And that consensus is on the simple idea that in a diverse democracy, you don’t really need to agree all the time—so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree. The reason India has survived and flourished despite all the stresses and strains of the last 67 years is that it has maintained consensus on how to manage without consensus.
The Chinese system requires consensus from top to bottom. It will flounder, and founder, if that consensus ever breaks down. This is why the Chinese model works in a predictable environment, but the Indian model may be better to cope with the perils of an uncertain world.