All Things Considered (National Public Radio (NPR)) had an interesting report on May 20, 2010, “India’s China Envy,” expressing three prominent Indian nationals’ “envy” for China’s recent success. India is a very important consideration in this debate about democracy. Zhang Weiwei, former Deng Xiaoping interpreter, has postulated (and later on written an Op-Ed piece for in the New York Times), in order to fully realize “democracy”, other developments such as economic and civil reforms must precede it. Many point to China a bigger success where China focused on economic reforms first and India given similar circumstances lagged – and if we ask Zhang Weiwei why, he’d probably argue it was due to premature and disproportionate focus on “democracy” at this stage.
For that reason, Indians views about democracy should therefore at least be more sober compared to Americans. Are they really so? Let’s take a look.
1. NPR on Karan Thapar, an Indian columnist:
He thought all the shiny buildings and wide, new roads were “awe inspiring.” But it was a painful kind of awe. In the middle of the last century, India and China were in the same place economically. Now China is three times richer. Its childhood malnutrition rate is far lower than India’s. Yes, Indians are free, Thapar says — free to be poor.
In this last sentence, I wonder if Thapar meant “free” in the same sense as U.S. media’s depiction of “freedom.” By the way, we have a featured post on Understanding Democracy by Allen (with further commentary that political freedom in the U.S. today do not reside with the public). It is interesting Thapar contrasted India’s freedom with freedom to be poor. While poor, the first order of “freedom” one cares most is free from hunger, disease, and other hindrance to a basic life. Is this a sober understanding of what “free” is about? Hard to say, but I think he has the right instinct on what “freedom” really means for relatively poorer countries.
2. NPR on Partha Sen, director of the Delhi School of Economics:
Says that “democracy in an everyday sense, in terms of getting things the poor need, has clearly not functioned. Somehow democracy has failed us.” Democracy moves slowly. People debate things. Infrastructure — roads, water, power — remains underdeveloped. The Chinese government doesn’t have endless parliamentary debates and legal battles. It doesn’t ask a lot of questions. It does things — builds roads, trains, power plants. “China invests a lot in infrastructure,” Sen says. “So China, they are on the ball. We are not.”
Is he trying to say China has effective leaders and the system allows for it, whereas India’s “democracy” allows for no strong leadership and hence everything gets bogged down?
3. NPR on Eswar Prasad, economist, head of the China division at the International Monetary Fund; now advises India’s government:
“We economists think that a benevolent dictator — a benevolent dictator with a heart in the right place — could actually do a lot of good,” Prasad says. The problem, he says, is that the economic record of dictators and single-party states is not very good. China seems to be an exception.
“very good . . . economic record” is indeed desirable. Perhaps Prasad prizes that above “democracy.”
(Prasad’s use of “dictatorship” to describe China’s leadership is peculiar though; he used the same rhetoric as the West. What about Japan? Japan was governed by a single party since WW2, and only recently is the country ruled by a different party. Is that “dictatorship? ” China’s leadership is far from dictatorship today. Perhaps under Mao it was like one. After that, China has changed the laws and instituted service terms and mandatory retirement ages for her leaders.)
Are Indians more sober in their views about democracy compared to Americans? Certainly. They seem to better understand what it means to be poor.
Curiously, NPR titled this segment, “India’s China Envy.” Is “envy” the right way to characterize Prasad, Sen, and Thapar for China’s success? Is there American “envy” in “India’s China Envy?”