by Yuge Ma & Danielle Karanjeet J. de Feo-Giet

Avoiding a simplistic comparison of China and India

As Xi Jinping embarks upon his first India trip, the relationship now being built between newly elected BJP strongman Narendra Modi and his Chinese counterpart is likely to be crucial to the overall balance of power in Asia, with far-reaching consequences for domestic and outward-facing policy.

Trade between India and China is growing, although still relatively underdeveloped, but as they learn from and compete with each other while playing a complex, wider regional political game, their leaders are likely to find new ways of cooperating.

The Indian media, political environment and popular debate are all obsessed with comparisons with China, both favourable and unfavourable, while China’s intellectuals and journalists focus on specific areas of contrast: outlets like the The People’s Daily highlight India’s relative success in delivering a popular culture that is widely consumed and loved domestically, and her relative failure in handling problems of education and poverty. In all cases, from the Xi Jinping’s sojourn to the public soapbox, comparison between the two nations is proving influential. Why is this comparison so important, and what are its parameters?

China and India currently account for almost 40% of the world’s population and for more than a decade have been broadly identified as the new engines of global economic growth. Both nations started their recent modernisation at around the same time: in 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s Southern China Tour Speeches announced the whole-hearted, state-backed liberalisation of the economy and one billion people’s ambition for material success was immediately unleashed. In the same year, India embarked on its own package of economic liberalisation, and the very low “Hindu Rate of Growth” was successfully abolished for the next 20 years. A new era had begun.

Since then, India and China have experienced rapid economic growth and urbanisation which have transformed their positions in the world, their view of themselves and their impact on the planet.

Nevertheless, their economic growth largely builds on constrained natural resources and high social inequality. According to the International Energy Agency, China and India combined are projected to create 50% of the world’s energy demand increase in the next 20 years, having already claimed the dubious honour of taking the lead in global carbon emissions in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, China and India together are home to around 40% of the world’s poorest people. Though the two countries, especially China, have done a remarkable job in poverty alleviation, their obsession with growth has disguised a failure to address the burdens of development: environmental degradation, social and regional inequality, physical and mental health problems, mass migration and grassroots riots.

As a consequence, despite their economic successes, these two countries are amongst the most unequal places on earth in terms of household income, gender equality and opportunities for social mobility – all factors that are potentially destabilising.

China and India’s large populations, their importance to the global economy and future balance of power, their huge impact on the world energy landscape and the environment and the potential consequences of their developmental issues mean that their success or failure is crucial. Indian and Chinese regional policy, often balancing the desire to work with or learn from each other with the legacy of border disputes and competition, is also testament to this.

How are Xi and Modi likely to cope with slowing economic growth and widening inequality? How do they solve the problem of escalating energy demand and the deteriorating environment upon which the survival of billions of people rests? How do they find a balance between “traditional” values and fast-changing social sentiment? And how do they transform themselves from aid-receivers and “free-riders” into more constructive stakeholders in global governance?

Trends in Modern China/India Comparison

In fact, although both countries face many of the same challenges they tackle them in very different ways, reflecting their contrasting political and social systems. A comparison reveals a unique pattern of like and unlike that can be useful in shedding light on the practice of international relations, politics, economics and social development.

Academic study of China and India exists in several intersecting areas – for example, divinity, especially Buddhist studies; political science and international relations, especially borders disputes, resource conflicts, and strategy in global governance; development studies, especially social policies and political economy; and culture, both “high” and “low”. But perhaps the most influential areas for study are economics and history.

Amartya Sen, Nobel Laureate in economics, has been one of the key figures pushing the envelope on India and China comparison since he published Poverty and Famines in 1982. He found that after Independence, India had successfully prevented famine even though its per capita food production was less than China. He argued the crucial difference was India’s more transparent and responsive political system compared to that of China under Mao.

However, by the 21st Century Sen’s work, which seemed to favour the Indian system and the adoption of democracy as a route to development, was no longer fashionable. China’s “economic miracle” overturned Sen’s thesis. A round of analysis to determine the “winner” of the economic future ensued. Young academic stars, such as Professor Yasheng Huang from MIT and Professor Tarun Khanna from Harvard, raised the question of who would come out on top in this new era, characterised by a philosophy of growth-at-any-cost.

Their well researched data showed that although China attracts more than 10 times the foreign direct investment (FDI) of India, the latter’s home-grown entrepreneurs may give it a long-term advantage over a China hamstrung by inefficient banks and capital markets. Their 2003 paper Can India Overtake China? published by Foreign Policy magazine, did not feed people’s expectation of the supremacy of the “China Model”, but it did signal a new round of China-India comparisons in both public and academic spaces.

Scholars from China also actively took part in this emerging debate. For example, Qin Hui, the renowned professor and public intellectual from Tsinghua University in Beijing, investigated the long-term economic growth patterns of China and India. He too found that his data recognised China’s superiority in terms of economic growth, depth of liberalisation and strength in building infrastructure. Qin argued that India’s disadvantage compared to China in the post-reform era is largely attributed to the higher transaction fees of economic reform in a democracy.

Analysts were beginning to look beyond economic statistics and starting to discuss how institutions – financial, educational, innovative, etc. – make a difference to China and India’s development.

With this in mind, in 2011 the well known political scientist and author of The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama, published the superlative The Origin of Political Order (vol. 1). In this book, spurred by his question as to why one seldom finds “serious comparative analysis of why an institution developed in one society but not in another”, Fukuyama sets himself the task of tracking China and India’s unique development back to their ancient history.

He argued that the divergence in China and India’s development started as early as the formation of their statehoods – both China’s wars for a centralised dynasty and India’s rise of Brahmin priests between the second and the first millennium BC embedded kings in tangled networks of religious obligations.

Nevertheless, his argument is certainly not universally accepted, and as respected a figure as Fukuyama has become, his methodology in performing his comparison has not provided any final answers either.

An Odious Comparison?

With a sustained contribution from leading scholars and interest from the general public, we are now seeing the burgeoning and multidisciplinary analysis of India. In the past this kind of work has been strongly, albeit justifiably, criticised. Comparative techniques have long had a reputation for being “odious”, but also for floundering into either cultural relativism, or simplistic hierarchical assessment.

The numerous “Dragon and Elephant” airport books that have appeared since the early 2000’s have only fed the image of a simplistic democracy versus authoritarianism, efficiency versus diversity – arguments that leave much to be desired, dumb down the facts for the public at large, and generally undermine the field, even as they stoke a sort of neo-Orientalist interest in it. But as we have found in our very different research areas, there are good reasons for doing such a comparison.

Until now, one of the main sticking points in this area has been the conclusion, from the social sciences especially, that what and how we compare depends heavily on theoretical approaches dominant in each country. These approaches however, are neither consistent nor cohesive, and given that the global reality is also diverse, it is surprising that we should expect them to be so.

The effect is a mismatch between the structure of comparative theory and the reality of comparative practice, a point brought home to Barbara Harriss-White, senior member of the Juxtapose team, when she co-organised a 2010 conference at the British Academy on China and India’s development pathways.

At the conference senior scholars on China and India from a variety of disciplines were divided into pairs and given the same topics to examine, with the expectation that a comprehensive comparative study would emerge. Although the conference itself was extremely successful, the resulting book took nearly four years to publish simply because the terms of comparison, and how to go about it, were elusive.

New Comparative Frameworks

How are these methodological and theoretical problems to be overcome? Can we form a better comparative framework to understand India and China in our changing world? And if so, how? How is this challenge being tackled in different disciplines and industries, and what can we learn from different approaches to collaboration and comparison?

In order to answer these questions, in January 2013 the authors co-founded the Juxtapose Project at Oxford. With a core belief in pluralism of culture, discipline, and participation, we conceptualised the Project as a platform for scholars, artists and policy practitioners to discuss China and India and to promote mutual understanding through academic and cultural innovations.

The annual Juxtapose Conference series is devised as simultaneously a scholarly gathering, with invited guest speakers and global contributions, an outlet for creative cooperation, an opportunity for in-person discussion and problem-solving and an online space where contributions can be made by academics, policy-makers and other interested parties.

It is intended to be truly inter- and multi-disciplinary, effectively providing a space for parallel processing of the methodological challenges of this important comparative turn in the study of India and China. With the support of Professor Harriss-White, and several research funds based at Oxford, the inaugural conference at Oxford in April 2013 attracted more than 200 participants from 12 countries, both in person and online.

Later this month the conference is going to Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, in order to integrate more South Asian scholars. We plan to triangulate with a third university in China in order to bring together a multilingual network of scholars working comparatively on the two countries.

China and India’s emergence in the 21st century has shifted the global political economy in many ways, in the process destabilising modes of thinking about development and politics. Both countries have no choice but to push forward a smooth transition into more equal and sustainable societies at the same time as performing rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and globalisation. This is a problem that has never been faced before in this way, and to tackle the challenge and deal with its human and cultural consequences, we need more ideas, collaborations and actions from all nations.

Through an understanding of the state of the field, and simply our experiences in running an international platform on China-India studies, we realise that when we look into the complexity of a subject and try to make sense of what underpins it, there is no absolute answer as to who is winner or loser. By comparing we aim for understanding, experience-sharing, better scholarship, a more balanced relationship between the Western academy and that of Asia (especially China and India) and better practical solutions to these global problems.

We have tried to show that there are many different points of emphasis and opinions in this scholarship. As Professor Harriss-White puts it: “We welcome this pluralism. This open attitude is not opportunistic, instead, it is based on grounds of principles: honesty to the facts, rigour to the methodology, and democracy to the debate”.

Yuge Ma is a DPhil student in the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at the University of Oxford and co-founder of the Juxtapose Project.
Danielle Karanjeet J. de Feo-Giet is a DPhil student in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford and co-founder of the Juxtapose Project.

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