The world’s two most populous nations began their modern journeys at almost the same time and in pretty much the same shape. A bloody civil war, coming on the back of the Second World War, had left China a bitterly divided and extremely poor nation, with its social and political institutions in ruins.
Tens of millions of Chinese had been uprooted and displaced, not to speak of the countless dead. Across its southern border, India attained independence from the British colonial yoke barely two years after the end of the Second World War and was left reeling by the bloody partition and its after effects, with millions of refugees having fled their homes in what had become East and West Pakistan. India was also still engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir.
The economies of the two nations were also similar: Mainly agriculture-driven, with practically no industrial base or exports and imports. Socially, too, China and India had the same profile, with high infant mortality, low life expectancy, poor health care and education infrastructure, and gross domestic product per capita of about $600 in 1950. The state of the two countries did not diverge dramatically until at least the late 1970s.
The first differentiating factor came near the end of the 1970s, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping unleashed a series of economic reforms, boosting not just manufacturing but also allowing private sector participation, often on the sly.
By the end of his rule a decade later, China was firmly on the path to decades of economic boom, with the establishment of huge industrial clusters, notably in the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian.
India had more or less kept pace with China until the early 1980s, but then the Chinese motor accelerated and left India years, if not decades, behind. Be it on economic, social or strategic indicators, India & China are no longer comparable. For example, life expectancy in India today stands at about 68 years a point that China surpassed nearly 30 years ago.
Another area where China has left India way behind is in tackling pollution, notably in the air and water. A decade ago, Beijing was by far the most polluted metro in the world and had become infamous for its smog. Chinese rivers were turning poisonous due to the uncontrolled flow of industrial and farming effluents.
Now, the air in Beijing is relatively clear and it is the Indian capital, New Delhi, that has taken the dubious distinction of being the most polluted capital in the world. In fact, 22 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world are in India and its water resources are facing the same set of challenges that China faced and has managed to overcome, at least to a certain extent.
Be it on economic, social or strategic indicators, India and China are no longer comparable
Economically, too, the Chinese panda has left the Indian elephant miles behind. Today, the Chinese economy is five times as big as India’s and its per capita income is about six times larger. Strategically, China has emerged as the most powerful nation not just in Asia, but indeed the sole country posing or capable of posing a challenge to the US.
In terms of international relations and diplomacy, China has made huge strides from where it was in 1950. At about that time, India had already established a wide network of close relationships with many countries and was at the helm of the Non Aligned Movement.
Today, using its raw financial muscle and investment capacity, China has made deep inroads as a partner practically all over the world and the Belt & Road Initiative of current President Xi Jinping is meant to strengthen Chinese influence even further.
The gap between the two nations is perhaps the starkest in their positioning or readiness for the future.
Intensive investments in high technology and research has seen the emergence of numerous Chinese tech giants; Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, etc. that are gearing up to counter Silicon Valley and in some areas have been honourable competitors.
China is also well placed in key technology areas like autonomous cars, electric vehicles and artificial intelligence.
Here, sadly, even though India has a robust information technology industry and globally recognised prowess, the country has been unable to create one technology company that could be counted among the world’s top 20.
Instead, India’s market in technologies for tomorrow is being rapidly gobbled up by Silicon Valley and the Chinese giants in equal parts. Thus, there is no Indian Amazon or Alibaba instead both are in a race to capture the Indian eCommerce market. Tencent’s social media firm TikTok and telecom hardware maker Xiaomi are now household names as much in India as they are in their home country.
The reasons for the divergent journeys of China and India are many, but not least because of the chaotic democracy that India has been since 1947. Another significant and perhaps more telling difference is the leaderships the two nations have had.
The Chinese leaders, while of course securing their own place and power, have had a long-term vision about how they would like to take the country forward. In India, however, almost all leaders have had their eyes blinkered by the next election, however insignificant it may have been.
Most leaders have spent their time in control amassing power rather than harnessing it to help the country develop. One can only hope that India will soon have leaders who will place the country’s interests before their own.