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Is the India-China gap narrowing?

November 09, 2004

During his visit to India in 2002, the local media fawned over Zhu Rongji. To a considerable degree the deference shown to him was justified on strategic grounds, given that it came during a time of great instability in south Asia.

Yet his proclamations were given disproportionate weight concerning India's economic affairs.

To be fair, China has posted some considerable economic success of late. While India and China had economies of roughly the same size in the 1950s and 1960s, China's greater progress with market reforms since the 1970s pushed it well out in front.

In particular, China has had spectacular success in expanding exports and attracting foreign direct investments. Despite India having a more predictable legal system and more extensive use of the English language, China received 10 times more FDI last year.

Measured in terms of purchasing power parity, China now ranks as the second largest economy in the world with India trailing at number four.

China has 30 per cent more people than India's 1.05 billion and its $ 1.4 trillion economy is already three times larger than India's.

Despite the record of the recent past, there is reason for hope that the economic gap between these rivals will soon diminish. On the one hand, India may advance in relative terms through no fault of its own.

This is because China's storied economic growth is likely to falter under the weight of a massive default of the banking system or from political pressures arising from restructuring of state enterprises.

On the other hand, India's leaders are becoming aware that their own economy can move forward more rapidly by undertaking meaningful and aggressive reform.

For example, India scores well in the area of macroeconomic conditions where restrained monetary expansion has brought inflation to a record low 2.5 per cent. China's battle with price instability has seen swings from high inflation in the mid-1990s to its current troubling bout of deflation.

One area that offers promise for India's economic growth involves labour market reforms that would allow companies with fewer than 1,000 employees to hire and fire without consulting government departments.

This could be the most significant single step taken recently to boost India's economy. In fact, it is as important as dismantling the licence-permit-quota raj and advancing the convertibility of the rupee.

While India suffers from crumbling physical infrastructure and an inflexible labour regime, it has numerous (potential and unexploited) advantages over its constant rival. While China's labour market is more flexible, it has to develop much of its physical infrastructure from scratch and it lags far behind in terms of "institutional infrastructure" that includes legal and judicial systems.

In terms of non-economic aspects of the China-India gap, India has a leg up. Although the Indian legal system is far from perfect, it is commonly understood that the role of laws and the courts is to protect individuals from abuses of power whether involving the state or private actors. Laws in China are generally used as instruments of state control over individuals and to direct their actions.

This brings up India's putative disadvantage in having a democracy with fractious and parlous partisanship. Delays in action may come dirty political laundry is aired in the lively and free media that encourage open discussion of social, economic and cultural issues.

As it is, China's excessive authoritarianism and obsession with state power and control, along with its controlled media, stifles settlement of contentious issues.

Left to simmer unabated, these unresolved problems invite reactions that include widespread economic failure or rioting and other expressions of civil discord that have become increasingly common.

Beijing has awakened a sleeping dragon and harnessed it to boost China's economy. Unless the political aspirations of this fire-breathing beast are fulfilled, it threatens to rise up and consume the Communist Party leadership to end its grip on power.

As for India, the tendency of its economy to lag behind is not due to its vibrant democracy. Instead, India suffers from too little economic liberalism and too many government interventions based upon misguided socialist precepts. And curing these ills is not as difficult as the democratic and judicial deficits that China suffers from.

The writer is research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala.

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Number of User Comments: 4

Sub: The Chinese vs. Indian Psyche

This is a good article. It is true that India has some advantages over China in terms of having a more western, modern legal and ...

Posted by Bhaskar Banerji

Sub: Emulate who?

In these articles the assumption seems to be that the Chinese and Western growth model is worthy of emulation. Go through a growth spurt, ignore ...

Posted by Ramiah Ariya

Sub: is india-china gap narrowing

NO, thats another of indias own illusions or another effort to rationaize whats wrong or whats going wrong right now. Clearly chinas effort in controling ...

Posted by kavindra mathi

Sub: India Vs China in terms of development

This article is nice and throws light on several facts.I would like to add another point to it. The main difference between India and China ...

Posted by Ram Sudhir Tadavarthi


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