Sept. 17 – Traveling extensively as I do now between India and China, I am often asked about the differences between the two countries. On one level, they are very much the same: huge nations with long coastlines, massive populations and emerging economies. Yet beyond that, when looking at the differences, it starts to get a little fuzzy, even conceptual.
To deal with the issue and understand the similarities and differences, I have written down the first top ten things I can get in India that I cannot in China. While not exactly scientific, this is what I came up with. Little deep thought or research went into these choices, but the fact they sprang to my mind first of all does indicate immediacy. Here is the list:
- online pornography
- independent media
- independent judiciary
- elected government officials
- stock markets with foreign companies listed
- cotton wool balls
In recognizing these, they all point to the story of freedom that Liang Qichao talked about in his India as a mentor to China speech when welcoming the Indian poet Tagore to Beijing in 1924.
Youtube is permanently blocked in China, apparently because the government objected to footage of a Tibetan monk being shot by Chinese soldiers as he sought refuge across the Himalayas. The footage was recent, and was filmed by a French mountaineering team on the Indian side. Tracking the movements of the solitary figure walking slowly through the snows to the Indian border, shots were heard as the monk he collapsed on the snow. China was outraged, calling the footage “fake.” Youtube has been blocked in China since and in India it is not.
Facebook and Twitter are both a social phenomena, ideally suited for bringing people together. Twitter has been used for networking and relaying small bites of information and lately even as an effective marketing application for small and medium enterprises. Facebook also offers networking possibilities and better ways to share information with family and friends.
Apparently to prevent unauthorized information getting out about the recent riots in Xinjiang, China has put a hold on the use of both Twitter and Facebook in the country. The Chinese versions of the sites have also been closed down. In India, they remain everyday social tools, people are free to connect, get silly and spread news among themselves. In this sense too, Indians are socially freer than their Chinese counterparts in their ability to talk to each other and to share and debate common experiences, be it good and bad. China doesn’t appear to have that trust of its own citizens, and denies them the tools.
Pornography is a social ill and has long been frowned upon by the Communist Party as immoral, a line few would dispute. Yet the banning of it from online viewing, which itself is not fully actionable, puts the state in the role of moral guardian. India doesn’t block porn but uses its own, secular religious fabric to teach people morals. Be they Hindi, Muslim, Christian, they all preach a sense of right or wrong to their believers. That doesn’t necessarily prevent people from behaving badly but by and large in the Indian population knows the difference between right and wrong.
I am not sure that is the case in China. With the state acting as guardian of China’s moral behavior, the Chinese have become largely amoral and not knowing the difference between right and wrong. This leads to selfishness and the rampant materialism we see today in China. Self first, regardless of the consequences. It’s a self defeating path, leading to short-term, immediate goals as the be all and end all, and is a growing problem in terms of how the Chinese deal with the problems that now affect their country. Corruption, environmental issues, IPR theft and bullying all stem from this amorality. It remains China’s biggest social problem to date.
Concerning independence of media, a trend is appearing. International newspapers are sometimes not available and some publications are banned. All Chinese media are given instructions on how and what to report by the state. India on the other hand has a raucous, independent media, although it can be annoying as much as censorship at times. Newspapers are in business to make money and sensationalism rules with the media concentrating often on the lowest common denominator.
India’s press is hung up with its relations with Pakistan, and to some extent China. They shriek and can be uncomfortable in their rhetoric, some of it on occasion even quite bizarre. But on the other hand, woe to the businessman or government official exposed as a conman, a cheat, or worse. While I’m not fully comfortable with the role of media as a nation’s watchdog, the silence from China’s media and reluctance to permit truly independent investigative journalism gets worrying in addition to issues with China’s control of social networking sites. That’s just too much, and given my overall dislike of the jabbering newshounds who represent much of India’s media, I prefer to retain the ability to self censor it out rather than have it done by some shadowy figure lurking in China’s ministerial corridors.
The same is true of an independent judiciary. In India, you can take the government to court and win. In China, there is no chance. Take the case of the melamine scandal, the fact that local government officials were apparently involved in the corruption that led to the incident meant the central government could not afford to permit further scrutiny of the role of government corruption in the case be exposed. A one party state can only tolerate so much criticism. In the melamine case, the ability to take cases against government officials were denied. That is not an independent judiciary.
India’s media and judiciary would have dealt with the matter according to law and the guilty found and publicly punished. Who or what occurred in the China melamine case will never be known – which significantly increases the chances of a similar event occurring again.
Having an elected government means that the elected members of India’s Parliament have to listen to their constituents. If they do not – they run the real risk of getting voted out of office at the next election. It’s a self censoring way of ensuring that the people have a real say in the running of their country and that pressing local issues can be heard by an audience representing the entire country.
Again, the one party state denies Chinese nationals this. In India, it is regarded as a fundamental basic right and discussing the subject with Indians leads to looks of utter incredulity that Chinese nationals could allow themselves to be governed without having a say.
The discussion is topical with many Chinese believing that their country is forging far ahead of India because they have a one party state. Some Indian politicians may even be secretly be envious of the ability of China’s government to push through reform without recourse to debate.
However, China’s rise has also occurred during an evolutionary phase in India’s democracy. An India coalition government for the past twenty years has not proved effective in dealing with the country’s many problems. However, with the new Congress Party having a de facto majority in place, we may now truly start to see a competition between the two systems. India’s democracy is now powerful, with a people united in their choices behind government.
While it remains to be seen whether the choices that will be made will let India catch up, democracy affords a less risky structure of progress with problems debated on all political fronts before decisions are taken. This is the weakness of China’s one party state and put to the test its problems including corruption and environment.
Openness to foreign business
The issue over foreign companies listing in China has been debated for some time and some reforms are expected to be announced soon. At present, despite the fact the Shanghai index is regularly treated as a China indicator, the reality is that no foreign businesses are listed on it. That means that not a dollar of the huge amount of foreign direct investment that China has received over the past twenty years is reflected in its stock market performances. Add that to the little quoted statistic that 90 percent of the companies listed in mainland China are directly or indirectly owned by the state, and you have a market where the government acts as regulator, banker and holds the dice all at the same time.
It’s close to being rigged and far from healthy, as any look at the performances of the Shanghai exchange would indicate. India on the other hand, while its total value of traded stock is far lower than China, does have transparency and has long welcomed subsidiaries of foreign multinationals to list on its exchanges. It’s mutually cooperative. American multinational companies are strictly governed by the FCPA or similar regulatory bodies back in the United States and that affects the transparency of Mumbai’s Sensex.
The lack of foreign invested businesses in China’s stock markets is not just a source of embarrassment to China, it is also indicative of the cronyism that exists within the Shanghai and Shenzhen bourses. They are far from mature, far from healthy and not indicative of China’s performance or an indicator of its progress. Why they are referred to as such and credited with moving markets elsewhere globally remains a mystery, at least to me.
Finally, cotton wool balls. As a consumer product, they are simple and globally available. From being used to dab antiseptic onto a graze, to removing nail polish, every cash and carry I know stocks them although in China, cotton wool is only sold in specialist medical stores. Go figure.
Next week, I’ll turn the tables and ask “Ten Things in China that You Can’t Get in India” and roast the other side of the equation. But for this week, the issues are as above. Comments are welcome.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner of Dezan Shira & Associates and lived in China for 21 years. He is now based in Mumbai.