Those who visit China often enough
marvel at how it has systematically grown to where
it is today, while we in India, despite bursts of
high growth, have belied our potential.
The thought came back to me while watching on TV the
women’s 3-metre synchronised diving at the London
Olympics. The pairs from other nations tried to be
good at their five routines. But none came remotely
close to Xi He and Minxia Wu. Their dives were
absolute perfection — in technique, synchronisation,
entry in water, execution and levels of difficulty.
From their first leap off the springboard, it was
clear then that unless they badly goofed up a
routine, no other team could ever dream of
challenging the Chinese. None did.
To me, it was a perfect example of how immaculately
China plans, creates goals and executes across each
activity that it wants to be in. And how, by doing
so across hundreds of such endeavours — be these in
sports, roads, highways, super-speed trains,
elevated Maglev lines, power, energy security,
manufacturing, exports and the armed forces — it has
systematically risen from being an also-ran state
with ancient bicycles and padded Mao suits to a
modern nation that is among the two real
super-powers of the world.
Does it mean that there is only efficiency and no
corruption in China? Absolutely not. The arrest of
Bo Xi Lai and his wife, who until recently was a
political superstars and the ‘emperor of Chongqing’,
shows how corruption goes at least as high up as it
does in India. There are many stories of
municipality-level acts of corruption and
rent-seeking. Indeed, I suspect that the purported
corruption in the 2G spectrum case or in the
Commonwealth Games pales to insignificance compared
to the sheer heft of the Chinese ‘takes’ — be these
by important officials or by the strongmen of the
I would, however, argue that Chinese corruption
comes with a difference. A person may get the
permission to build a huge housing complex only
after greasing palms; but payment of a big bribe
does not give the developer implicit consent to
construct a poorly built project.
Go to any major city in China, see the
infrastructure, and you will know what I mean. The
walls don’t show cracks within a month or two; the
wirings don’t burn out in the first six months; the
tiles don’t come off; the air-conditioning units
don’t collapse every second week. Chinese
infrastructure works; and with the odd aberration or
two, works splendidly. Moreover, corruption in China
is now being heavily cracked down on, because
tolerating it like before is becoming politically
far too risky.
In contrast, our corruption — more frequent but with
lower transaction rates than in China — is a price
for governmental permission or waiver. It neither
ensures quality nor on-time service or delivery.
There is no pressure on a bribe-giving developer to
build an error free property. Indeed, it is often
quite the opposite.
Let me revert to the original theme: why do the
Chinese excel so often, while we don’t? I have a
hypothesis. With well over 95 per cent of the
population being Han speaking, there is a common
culture which brings with it a shared view of
China’s place in the world. If you ignore the
Tibetans, Uighurs and the other tiny minorities in
the western parts of China, there is a commonly held
view of China’s manifest destiny of being a
superpower, which is constantly stoked by the shame
of foreign domination — especially from the Opium
War up to the end of Japanese occupancy.
This shows up everywhere. In winning more gold in
each successive Olympics, often in sports where the
Chinese were absent two decades ago. In building
high speed trains. In having the highest and longest
railway track in the world leading to Lhasa. In
commissioning the world’s best architects to design
amazing buildings. In creating a powerful blue-water
navy. And in wearing suits to international meetings
instead of native dresses.
Unlike China, India is still not a nation state in
the minds of its citizens. It is an amalgam of
hundreds of languages, cultures and constructs that
simultaneously live in different histories as well
as geographies. Our politicians find that playing
upon these differences is more beneficial than in
creating a commonly held sense of national purpose.
We have little in our innate polity to succeed
systematically, while having the means to do so.
Thus we succeed sporadically— and bring great joy
when we do — only to slump to the body language of
warring, disunited, constituency grouped lots. Call
it democracy. Or of having huge political
entitlement without corresponding economic
achievement. Whatever you call it, China does… and
we don’t. It doesn’t mean that we are losers. Just
that we aren’t winners. When we well could be.
Published: Business World, August