bout 20 years ago, a press officer of the Chinese Embassy in Delhi sought a meeting with me. She asked me at the end of the discussion whether I thought China was India’s friend or foe. I replied ‘foe.’ There, the exchange ended. Yet we must understand the strengths of our opponent if we have to win the fight. At present, China is being internationally derided for crushing democracy in Hong Kong. This anti-democratic tirade started with the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Since then, US experts have been predicting the imminent collapse of autocracy in China. They have held that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between market capitalism and autocracy. Capitalism needed freedom to grow, while autocracy required restricting that same freedom. However, these predictions have been utterly disproven. China has become world’s number two economic power while maintaining its autocratic rule.
Political scientists say the fundamental ingredient of governance was ‘legitimacy.’ Any system works as long as people consider the rulers to be legitimate. The form of the particular system is not important as long as the people consider it legitimate. And, it seems, the Chinese people do consider the autocratic state to be legitimate. The Edelman Trust of the US publishes an annual report on governance. In a 2020 report, it said that, according to a survey done in October-November 2019, some 90 per cent of Chinese people have trust in their government. In comparison, 81 per cent people in India and only 39 per cent in the US had trust in their governments. Further, 59 per cent people in China fear that they may be left behind in the march of humankind. In comparison 73 per cent people in India and 55 per cent people in the US feared so. More numbers of Indians are afraid that their government will take them into the dumps.
Another study done by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at Harvard University has surveyed the governance in China from 2003 to 2016. Here I am giving figures from 2011 to 2016 only since these overlap with the ascendance of Xi Jinping who is considered to be moving fast to create an absolute autocracy. Harvard University has said that 61 per cent of the people considered their local governance to be kind towards the ordinary people in 2011. This increased to 74 per cent in 2016. In 2011, some 45 per cent of people considered the local bureaucracy to work for the rich in 2011. This reduced to 40 per cent in 2016. Forty-four per cent of people felt that their local bureaucracy is concerned with the difficulties of ordinary people. This increased to 52 per cent in 2016. Thirty-two per cent of the people said that local bureaucracy imposed illegal taxes and fees in 2011. This reduced to 23 per cent in 2016. It is clear that the bureaucracy has become more benign during the reign of Xi.
An article published in the New York Times says that Deng Xiaoping started to reward bureaucracy for ushering in economic development. They were ranked and promoted on the basis of their performance in securing economic prosperity. Thus, the “ossified bureaucracy,” says the New York Times, was transformed into a “capitalist machine.” In recent times, Xi has added criteria such as social harmony, environment protection, public service and happiness of people. Clearly, the Chinese government is meeting the expectations of the people even if it is autocratic.
Now, let us consider the views of our tradition regarding democracy. Yudhishtira says in Chapter 108 of Shanti Parva of Mahabharata, “Differences among the top people of democracy is the cause of destruction.” Question then is this: Why is it that the US is, in the words of New York Times, “exporting” democracy when it is not delivering within America, and while China is doing well without it? Here too, Yudhishtira comes to our aid. He says, “The best of the persons in a democracy get controlled by enemies due to differences in their inner thoughts.” Again, “Enemies control a democratic country by creating differences among the best of persons.” These teachings suggest that the US is encouraging democracy in countries like India so that they can create differences within India and control India.
Our democracy, if we listen to Yudhishtira, may be the route to disintegration of our sovereignty. We should, therefore, not blindly assume that democracy is the best. Let us not forget that democratic India and autocratic China were economically at par in 1981. After the turn of the century, autocrat China kept overtaking democratic India. We must be careful in accepting American diatribes against China because American assessment of the perils of Chinese autocracy has proven wrong.
I must admit here that I had also thought in the ‘90s that the Chinese economy will flounder. My logic was that Chinese dependence on exports to the West will create trouble for the red nation as and when the Western economies go into a recession, as they indeed did in 2008. I too have been proven wrong. Instead of floundering with the American economy, China has successfully overpowered its rival.
These perils of democracy notwithstanding, it is also true that democracy has been the foundation of development of mankind. The common man gets mental freedom to think and act. Every citizen is free to explore his/her potential and this leads to inventions that have transformed our lives in a positive direction. The likes of steam engine, electricity, nuclear power and jet airplanes are all products of democracy, not autocracy. The challenge before us, therefore, is to adopt the free thinking environment of democracy along with the pro-people ambience of Chinese autocracy.
We need to take two steps in this direction. One, our rulers must have deep engagement with the Opposition instead of deriding them. Dialogue leads to a commonality of views and, as Yudhishtira says, “the chances of internal division leading to destruction are minimised.” Two, we need to transform our bureaucracy, the character of which appears to be exactly opposite to that of China. The loot by Indian bureaucracy is destroying every facet of our lives.
Our politics is getting focused on reservations rather than on economic growth because people want their share of the loot by getting government jobs. Our education system continues to sell certificates because highly paid teachers and professors do not have any compulsion to teach. Our economy is going down since the Fifth Pay Commission because wealth of the country is being used to pay high salaries to government servants rather than investing in areas like, say, space research. The combination of deeper democratic dialogue and accountability of bureaucracy can beget us both mental freedom and economic prowess.
The writer is a former Professor of Economics at IIM Bangalore.