Originally published in Seminar magazine on January 1, 2008

FIVE years was a decent slice of time to spend in a country and I had used it relatively well: travelling and asking questions. But as I geared up to draw a curtain across my China-life, I was increasingly being called upon to answer a few questions as well. ‘Where was China heading?’ people would ask me when I travelled outside the country to Europe or the U.S. Was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doomed or would it continue to be a formidable political force in the coming decades? Would China implode in the absence of a democratic revolution? Was its economic growth sustainable without fundamental institutional reform?

In India, the key question was different. From newspaper editors to the maid at home, the most common query I encountered was a deceptively simple one: What could India learn from China? What should India be doing that China had already been doing? For China, the U.S. remained the ultimate benchmark when it came to its self-assessment of national power and achievement. But for India, it was China that had emerged as a commonly used yardstick to evaluate its own progress.

Back in China the question I faced with greatest frequency was again different, at once the crudest and perhaps most difficult of all to answer. ‘Which is better? India or China?’ taxi drivers in Beijing had asked me with monotonous regularity. ‘Do you prefer India or China?’ my students at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute (BBI) had often queried. ‘Do you like living in Beijing? Or was it better in Delhi?’ my hutong neighbours enquired whenever they got the opportunity.

This last question in its various forms was one that I spent much thought grappling with and my answers were as variable as the day the question was posed. Following conversations with Lou Ya and other toilet cleaners in my neighbourhood, I would think back to the wretched jamadarnis back home and marvel at the relative dignity of labour that China’s lowliest enjoyed. In my hutong, the refuse collectors wore gloves when picking up the garbage on their daily rounds. This single, simple article of protective clothing and the barrier it created between bacteria and skin leant them at least a modicum of self-respect. Their children almost always went to school. They may not have been well educated themselves but could usually read and write enough to avoid the worst kind of exploitation.

These were modest gains and not everyone in China could claim even such moderate progress. But were I one of the millions-strong legions of cleaners, sweepers, janitors or night soil workers in India, I would probably prefer by some twist of karma to have been born Chinese.


But on other days I felt differently. There were days when I spent hours hunting for a Chinese source amongst the country’s think tanks, universities and research institutes for fresh insight or an alternative point of view on an issue for a story I had been working on. It was always such dishearteningly hard work.

China’s was a pragmatic society and over the years I met any number of people blessed with more than usual amounts of a canny, street-smart, intelligence. As evidenced by the Zhejiang entrepreneurs, ordinary Chinese were masters of locating the loophole, of finding escape routes, of greasing the right hands and bypassing stifling regulations. If need be, they could sell contact lenses to a blind woman and chicken feet to a vegetarian.

But while it may have abounded with consummate salespeople and irrepressible entrepreneurs, Chinese society remained deeply anti-intellectual. More the product of a political and educational system that discouraged criticism and encouraged group-think than any primordial characteristic, this was the one aspect of China I personally found most wearying. It was the absence of a passion for ideas, the lack of delight in argument for its own sake, and the dearth of reasoned but brazen dissent that most often gave me cause for homesickness. When my Foreign Ministry interpreter in Tibet claimed that China was different from other countries in that all Chinese must think the same thing, she was consciously overstating her case. Nonetheless, a nub of truth in what she said remained.

In China, those who disagreed with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not found themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat. Thus a professor who misspoke to a journalist could suddenly be demoted. An editor who pursued a corruption investigation too zealously might find herself fired. A lawyer, who simply tried to help his client to the best of his abilities could, were the client of the wrong sort, ironically land in jail himself.


In universities like BBI the idea was drilled into students’ heads that there were right answers and wrong answers. While ambiguity and nuances may have been both sensed and exploited in practice, on a purely intellectual plane there was little space for them. For an argumentative Indian from a country where heterodoxy was the norm, this enforced homogeneity in Chinese thought and attitude scratched against my natural grain.1 There were thus occasions when despite all of India’s painful shortcomings, I would with conviction assert that it was nonetheless better to be an Indian than endure the stifling monotony of what tended to pass as an intellectual life in China.

But then I would return to Delhi for a few days and almost immediately long to be back in Beijing where a woman could ride a bus or even drive a bus without having to tune out the constant staring and whispering of the dozens of sex-starved youth that swarmed around the Indian capital’s streets at almost any given time. Later on the same day, however, I might switch on the TV and catch an ongoing session of the Indian Parliament, not always the most inspirational of bodies but when looked at with China-habituated eyes, more alluring than usual.

China’s economic achievement over the last 30 or so years may have been unparalleled historically, but so was India’s political feat. Its democracy appears almost unique amongst post-colonial states not simply for its existence but its existence against all odds in a country held together not by geography, language or ethnicity but by an idea. This was an idea that asserted, even celebrated the possibility of multiple identities. In India you could and were expected to be both many things and one thing simultaneously.

I was thus a Delhite, an English speaker, half a Brahmin, half a Tamilian, a Hindu culturally, an atheist by choice, a Muslim by heritage. But the identity that threaded these multiplicities together was at once the most powerful and most amorphous: I was an Indian.


India’s great political achievement was thus in its having developed mechanisms for negotiating large-scale diversity along with the inescapable corollary of frequent and aggressive disagreement. The guiding and perhaps lone consensus that formed the bedrock of that mechanism was that in a democracy you don’t really need to agree – except on the ground rules of how you will disagree.2

All of which being true still did not help to definitively answer the question, ‘If I could choose, would I rather be born Indian or Chinese?’

Perhaps part of my problem was that unlike how students were educated in China into believing there were right and wrong answers, I had been encouraged to do precisely the opposite. ‘Always problematise’, my earnest, khadi kurta clad professor, Sankaran, used to thunder at us during class back in my undergraduate days as a philosophy student in Delhi.

But if forced to reply in broad brush strokes I would assert the following: Were I to be able to ensure being born even moderately well-off, I would probably plump for India over China.


In India, money allowed you to exist happily enough despite the constant failure of governments to deliver services. Thus most Delhi households that could afford it had private generators for when the electricity failed and private tube wells in their gardens to ensure the water supply that the municipality couldn’t. The police offered little protection from crime and so many households hired private security guards.

Having developed the necessary private channels with which to deal with the lack of public goods one was free in India to enjoy the intellectual pleasures of discussing the nature of ‘the idea of India’ or to enjoy the heady adrenalin rush of winning a well-argued debate. These were real pleasures and freedoms and their broader significance was not merely confined to the elite. A tradition of argumentation was fundamental to India’s secularism and democratic polity, with wide-ranging implications for all sections of society.

On the other hand, were I to be born poor, I would take my chances in authoritarian China, where despite lacking a vote, the likelihood of my being decently fed, clothed and housed were considerably higher. Most crucially, China would present me with relatively greater opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility. So that even though I may have been born impoverished, there was a better chance I wouldn’t die as wretched in China, as in India.

This was not to deny the importance of the vote for India’s poor, which undoubtedly endowed them with collective bargaining power. Dislocating large numbers of people to make way for big infrastructure projects, for example, was an uphill task for any Indian government. As a result, the kind of wanton destruction of large swathes of a historic city like Beijing, justified by the hosting of a sporting event, would be extremely unlikely to occur in India. In China on the other hand, not only did the poor lack a vote,3 but the CCP was also adept at disabling the capacity of disaffected peoples to organise, thus depriving them of the influence of numbers that could pressure government policy through other means.


However, it was also patently clear that in India the right to vote did not necessarily or even usually translate into better governance. Fear of alienating a vote-bank might persuade a local politician to turn a blind eye to illegal encroachment by migrants on city land. But the ensuing slum would lack even the most rudimentary facilities like sewage or water supply.

Citizens threw out governments in India with predictable regularity. The country’s vast poor majority dismissed on average four out of five incumbents, so that what was called the anti-incumbency factor was possibly the most crucial in any Indian election.

Often celebrated as a sign of India’s robust democracy what this state of affairs in fact reflected was a track record of governance that was so abysmal that even in regions where incomes had improved and poverty reduced, people believed this was in spite and not because of the government.4


So ultimately, despite political representation for the poor in India and the absence of political participation in China, the latter trumped India when it came to the delivery of basic public goods like roads, electricity, drains, water supplies and schools where teachers actually show up. This counterintuitive state of affairs was linked to the fact that while in China the CCP derived its legitimacy from delivering growth, in India a government derived its legitimacy simply from its having been voted in. Delivering on its promises was thus less important than the fact of having been elected.

The legitimacy of democracy in many ways absolved Indian governments from the necessity of performing. The CCP could afford no such luxury. As a result the Chinese government was more responsive to the socio-economic problems confronting it than it was often given credit for, bringing us back to another of the questions frequently posed to me: where was China headed in the new century?

This was a question I wasn’t alone in trying to answer. It was one that preoccupied a battery of analysts around the world and the majority consensus, at least in the West, appeared to be that China’s uncomfortable blend of authoritarian politics and liberal economics was unsustainable.


Opinion was divided along the lines of what one author5 recently described as the ‘soothing scenario’ according to which democracy in its western liberal form was the inevitable and natural outcome of China’s economic reforms and the ‘upheaval scenario’ according to which the paradoxes of the current regime would lead to its inevitable and imminent collapse.

That contemporary China was rife with contradictions was undeniable. Its ruling party espoused a communist, egalitarian ideology while presiding over the emergence of one of the world’s most unequal societies. Social and economic freedoms chafed against continued political control. The contradictory needs and aspirations of the urban middle class jostled against those of peasants and migrant workers. From architecture to religion, the uneasy coexistence of ancient tradition, enforced modernity and resurgent tradition was apparent for the looking. For swarms of fortune-seeking foreigners, from yoga teachers to hotel doormen, China was fast becoming a land of opportunity, yet hundreds of millions of its own impoverished citizens remained ready to risk their lives for any chance of escape abroad.

The new China was a land of dichotomies: chaos and control, change and continuity, wealth and poverty, good and evil coexisted here in a potentially explosive mix.

But based on empirical evidence as opposed to ideological axioms that claimed one or the other inevitable future for China, the CCP like most ordinary Chinese, was surprisingly adept at negotiating these contradictions. China’s government may have been walking a tightrope but the Chinese were famously skilled acrobats. Rather than inevitable collapse or democratisation it thus seemed to me just as likely that China would continue successfully along its present course of economic growth and reform coupled with only minor political change, for the near to mid future.

Over the course of the last 30 years China’s authorities had demonstrated time and again their ability to identify and respond to key problems caused by corruption, income inequalities and environmental degradation.


Recently, a spate of critics have characterised the Chinese party-state as paralysed or unable to effectively function either as a result of the chronic corruption that plagues it or the inconsistencies between its economic and political policies.6 Over the course of my stay in China, however, what struck me time and again wasn’t the unresponsive or sclerotic state of the Chinese government but rather its embrace of pragmatism and willingness to experiment with new ideas. This was particularly striking when contrasted with the tired, ideological opposition by India’s communist parties to virtually anything innovative, from special economic zones to new directions in foreign policy.

In China, the special economic zones strategy for example did not spring from a priori assumptions about their theoretical goodness or badness. The original SEZs were in fact initiated to act as laboratories, providing a controlled environment within which to experiment boldly with reforms. Once the experiment was deemed successful, SEZs were more widely adopted so that by the time I moved to China virtually every county and district in the country boasted investment zones of some kind.


Pilot projects were thus the preferred way for the CCP to test out reforms from cooperative medical care schemes in the countryside to proposals to abolish the hukou system. The focus was usually on trying to establish what worked best in practice before the wholesale adoption of any new policy. Of course what ‘worked best’ was defined by certain parameters, the most fundamental of these being the strengthening or at least the preservation of the CCP’s power. It was thus to this end that Beijing had developed a range of tools of governance. These included brutal repression but also more sophisticated methods like the co-option of key constituencies and the isolation of dissent by control of nodes of information dissemination.

But given China’s increasing integration into global trade coupled with the spread of new technologies like the Internet and mobile telephony,7 Beijing was also aware that neither brute force nor censorship could guarantee the continued reign of the party on their own. What was in fact found to work best for preserving the CCP’s grip on power was delivering economic growth.

The constituency that benefited most directly from this growth also happened to be the one that had been the most potent force for democratisation elsewhere in the world: the urban middle class. By tying the prosperity of this group to the continuance of the party at the helm of policy-making, the CCP had effectively politically neutralised what could have been its most formidable foe.

The students who marched on Tiananmen in 1989 had thus been replaced by the likes of Cindy, Grace and my other students at BBI. This was a tribe that was studiously apolitical and fiercely nationalistic. The freedoms they yearned for – to make money, to fall in love, to get double-eye lid surgery – were theirs for the taking.


In May 2004, I spent several hours interviewing a random selection of 10 students for a TV story I was putting together to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen protests and killings. None of those I talked to, many of whom were top academic achievers, could describe in any detail what the issues at stake in 1989 had been. Most however insisted that the ‘incident’ could never be repeated again.

‘You see,’ explained Leo, a young man who styled himself as a bit of an alternative thinker, ‘students today are more rational than before.’ ‘How so,’ I asked. ‘They know the right approach to solving a problem. It doesn’t necessarily have to be violent. Gradual reform is always best,’ came the reply.

The consensus appeared to be that the students back in 1989 had been mislead by a few ring leaders who had their own interests rather than those of the community in mind when acting to fuel ‘trouble’ thus ‘forcing’ the government’s hand. Once again, I was confronted with a situation in which my brightest students presented what was in fact official propaganda as self-drawn and carefully considered conclusions of their own.


The CCP’s co-option of the class of society my students belonged to was almost complete. As they rarely tired of pointing out, life for them had been getting better and better. In 2001 entrepreneurs were officially allowed to join the Communist Party. In 2007 the government passed a private property bill, primarily aimed at ensuring the rights of the urban middle class, despite substantial public opposition.

The fact is that were China to hold democratic elections tomorrow, the 700 million peasants in the country would be more than likely to vote for policy priorities that were different from or even opposed to those that suited the interests of city-based professionals and business people. The Chinese bourgeoisie thus had in-built resistance to a scenario that would place them on the same political footing as their less educated and rough-edged compatriots from the countryside. The CCP had been successful not only in persuading them that it was in their self-interest to see the one-party state remain in power but that this was a conclusion they had arrived at all on their own.

But the party was also well aware that the support of the urban elite on its own was insufficient to keep it in power in a country where peasants still formed a comfortable majority. It was to peasant support that the CCP owed its rise to power some sixty-years ago and as China’s centuries-long history had demonstrated time and again, rulers could ignore the countryside only at their own peril.

In the new century several alarm bells were going off, symptoms of rural disenchantment that could spell serious trouble for the CCP in the future. By 2005 the number of ‘mass incidents’ (a rather vaguely defined term used by the police to characterise a range of protests, demonstrations and riots), across China totalled 87,000. This was a 600 per cent increase over the previous decade. The overwhelming majority of these incidents took place in the country-side where illegal land grabs, illegal pollution by factories, unbridled official corruption and reduced social security provisions were leading to bubbling anger which erupted every once in a while, often in violent form.


As though on cue, from 2005 onwards, the formerly GDP-obsessed rhetoric of the party leadership took a sharp left turn with the creation of a ‘new socialist countryside’, upheld as the primary future goal of governmental efforts. The idea was that China needed to focus less on indiscriminate growth and more on redistribution of resources and rebalancing of incomes. The following years thus saw beefed up governmental spending on basic education and medical care, additional subsidies for farmers, abolition of rural taxes and large injections of funding in rural infrastructure projects. In 2006, the police reported a 20 per cent drop in mass protests over the previous year.8

One rather startling fact was that China’s income inequality measured by the gini coefficient – a commonly used statistical measure of inequality where 0 represents perfect equality and 100 perfect inequality – was at 44.7, worse even than that of India’s 32.5.9 For the CCP the width of the income gap was embarrassing. It was also potentially the greatest threat to its legitimacy. Redressing the gap was thus zeroed in on as an issue in need of urgent attention.

However, unlike the strategy deployed under Mao, the new leadership aimed not at achieving equality of outcomes but rather equality of opportunity. Education, which had for long played second fiddle to the building of roads and other infrastructure, once again loomed large on the policy agenda. A programme for nine years of free public education in the poorer inland provinces was launched with the intention of extending it to cover the entire country within a decade. Massive ramping up of higher education was also being undertaken. The number of university graduates quadrupled in the five years since I moved to China.

Similarly, other potential flash-points like the regional income gap, corruption and environmental pollution were also being addressed.10

It could with some truth be argued that Beijing’s responses to the challenges confronting it were akin to putting a bandage on a broken arm. Many of the fires the CCP was busy putting out were in fact of its own making, the result of flaws in the basic structures of governance. But it could also be argued that in addition to slapping on bandages on obvious wounds the leadership was making some attempt to actually mend the arm itself, with one caveat: it was Chinese rather than western medicine that was being looked to for a cure.


* Extracted with permission from Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of Chindia, Harper Collins, 2008 (forthcoming)