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  China Does, We Don’t…   

Omkar Goswami


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 Red Army.

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 2012


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