By Chris Devonshire-Ellis and Seema Rani Bhende
Sept. 22 – Following last week’s Ten Things in India that You Can’t Get in China, this week we turn the tables and examine the question the other way around. This is what we felt were the immediate issues:
While it is true many Indians have got where they are on merit, it is truer in China. In fact, China has changed from being a Communist society to a meritocracy. Work hard and you can be rewarded in China no matter who you are. It’s a platform that the Communist ideology has provided and is available to most.
Large tracts of India’s society however remain stuck in the caste system, which although illegal, continues to discriminate against society’s traditional poor. Born a Dalit or untouchable and stay a Dalit; this is your karma on earth and it is unchangeable. Even attempting to marry outside your caste can lead to violence and discrimination instantly recognizable through surnames.
The idea of an individual from a family of gravediggers or butchers becoming an eminent doctor or surgeon are vastly minimized. It remains India’s shame and the largest problem that Indian society has to solve today.
A steady supply of electricity
While it’s not entirely true to say that China doesn’t have brown outs, in India, the problem is acute and more so in third-tier cities and rural areas. Generators have long been a way of life for Indians even marginally off the main roads and remain the main source of electricity for many. It has become, just as it did for investors into China in the early-mid 1990’s, a prerequisite to ensure a secondary supply of energy is available to factories.
China’s experience in boosting the capabilities of its national grid is something India can tap into but it will take years for infrastructure improvements to ensure that villages and towns across the nation can rely on something most Chinese can take for granted – the steady light of an electric light bulb at night.
In India, you cannot always rely on your taxi or rickshaw driver being able to read the address of where you want to go, even if it is written in Hindi or English. Agreeing to the fare then stopping several times to ask, rather than read directions is remarkably common.
In China as long as your hotel or a friend writes down the address in Mandarin, you will get to where you need to go. According to UNESCO, China’s literacy rate is 91 percent, whereas in India, it is about 66 percent. Much needs to be done in rural India to raise India’s level of reading and writing to acceptable norms.
Cross city travel in an hour
China’s traffic problems pale in comparison with India. China’s road infrastructure is impressive, with a total estimate of some 2.2 million kilometers of national highway. India’s national road infrastructure amounts to little over 70,000 kilometers. That appalling statistic remains the reason why in China, even with heavy traffic, it is possible to cross downtown Beijing or Shanghai in little over an hour. Try doing that in Mumbai and it’ll take you four hours from Juhu to Colaba, a distance of about 15 kilometers.
Things get done in China a lot faster than India. What is termed as Indian standard time or IST includes tea breaks, traffic snarl ups, cricket discussions and all varieties of distractions. While this habit is colorful, entertaining and socially agreeable, the chattering classes of India find far more time to gossip than their Chinese counterparts do thus productivity often suffers as a result.
International retail stores
Giant international retail stores like Wal-Mart, Carrefour, Ikea and Tesco are now well-entrenched in China. These massive temples of consumerism are matched in size by their local counterparts. Although often blamed for the demise of the mom and pop stores in the United States and Europe, retail stores thrive and do well in China.
Moreover, the local Chinese wet markets and stores still survive and prosper because Chinese consumers patronize both. India’s retail sector is dominated by small players and village stores, and politically, the idea of Carrefour setting up next door drives the India retail sector cold with fright. So much so that even in these enlightened days of Indian market reforms, international retail giants are prohibited from doing business in the country while domestic players are not.
A decent sized taxi
Fifteen years ago, Beijing banned the tiny little yellow minivans that used to pass as taxis. The small, locally made little red cars that were ubiquitous across the country also disappeared in the space of about two years. Hardly big enough for the average Westerner, they had until then proven quite adequate for the willowy Chinese figure.
A growth spurt among the Chinese provided by rising incomes and a better diet and a government keen to kick start its domestic auto industry saw China phase out the ancient, rusted vehicles. It was replaced with gleaming new Volkswagens, which have become the car of choice for taxis in the country. These taxis are a vast improvement; having enough space to take two sizable foreigners plus luggage to the local airport.
Indian taxis ares are still the Premier Padmini, a tiny car based on the 1957 vintage Fiat 1200, and the Ambassador, based on the 1948 vintage Morris Oxford. Car air conditioning in these cars consist of a tiny fan mounted on the dashboard to stave off the heat. Although there are moves to replace India’s taxis, it’ll take some time.India’s automobile joint ventures however may look forward at some point to provide taxis to the nation’s fleets, but China’s passengers in the meantime drive around in luxury compared to India’s archaic, bumpy, ancient 50 year-old excuses for a ride.
While India is often thought of as hot, it does of course border the Himalayas and possesses some of the highest, coldest and driest land on earth. Even the furnace of Delhi lowers its winter temperatures to little above freezing in the shadow of the Himalayas during January and February. But parts of Northern China technically exist in Siberia, which is geologically defined as being the range of the Silver Birch tree, and thus extends far beyond the borders of Russia.
With Siberian winds howling down from the north, China can get very cold indeed. The former Manchurian cities of Harbin, Changchun and Jilin still register below -20 C during winter months. In Harbin and Jilin, huge annual ice cities arise, carved out of massive blocks of ice hewn from the rivers. Pagodas, temples and entire castles 100 feet in high are constructed each winter.
They are a popular tourist attraction, and while India can feel cold, it’s China that can boast the glory of wrapping up warm and reveling in sub-zero temperatures.
Bike friendly roads
Both India and China are the spiritual homes of the modest bicycle and like China, for many rural and city individuals it is their main form of transportation. Cheap to buy and easy to use and store, they remain the transport of choice for the masses in both countries. But this is where their similarity ends.
While it is easy to bike around Chinese cities because of increasing amounts of denominated bike-only lanes, in India you risk getting hit by a cow or even cars playing chicken with you. And don’t get us started on the pot holes.
We find Indian and Chinese families and friends equally hospitable towards foreigners. Invitations to their houses for drinks and dinner and an enthusiasm to show you around, act as a guide or help with shopping, purchases, finding an apartment and so on mark both as some of the most accommodating people we’ve met, anywhere. This is remarkable given their massive populations and lack of space.
Perhaps that very fact makes both far more tolerant than most Westerners. However, while foreign and Chinese relationships and even marriages are now relatively common, that is not the case in India. Indian girls marry Indian boys and it is a major source of trauma for an Indian family if this standard is not followed. The practice is related to India’s inherent caste system, where even a foreigner dating a local Indian girl remains rare. Interracial love it seems, is a Chinese virtue.
Comments are welcome.