Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

India Ahead of China

China's revolution was 50 years old on Friday. It is the last major country to be under Communist rule. But even now, the impression lingers that China's economic miracle is somehow due to the fact that it has been run by a tough, centralized dictatorship - unlike, for example, impoverished, democratic India.

India, now in its 52nd year of independence, is holding the final round of a general election on Sunday. It is India's third election in three years, and once again it will produce a fractious parliament of around 40 parties, most of them defined by language, religion, region and caste. It will probably take weeks even to form a coalition government. What more evidence could you need that dictatorship works better?

It has become routine to contrast the achievements of the world's two biggest countries, and the glistening tinted-glass towers that now throng Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen certainly look more impressive than the chaotic cityscapes of Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta. Moreover, the statistics back up this impression.

China was in much worse shape than India in 1949, having just emerged from a dozen years of war, but today its per capita gross national product is about twice that of India's. Although it's much harder to learn to read Chinese (there is no alphabet), China has a higher literacy rate. And it even claims to have its population growth under control, thanks to the rigorously enforced one-child policy: China now has 1.2 billion people to India's 1 billion, but India is forecast to overtake China within the next 20 years.

So China wins hands down, and dictatorship is indeed better at development than democracy. Except that we aren't really comparing like with like - and besides, dictators lie a lot.

The cumbersome state-run economic system favored by India's post-independence governments grew slowly at first: an average of only 3.5 percent a year in its first three decades, which was barely ahead of the population growth rate. But now, India's economy has been substantially liberalized and restructured, and for the past six years, it has grown at an average of 6.5 percent.

That still doesn't compare with the 8 percent growth that China claimed for 1998 - even though electricity consumption only grew by 2 percent in China last year, which makes you wonder about the accuracy of that figure.

Then you recall that most urban employment in China is still in rusting-out state industries that have yet to be restructured or closed, and that the government has just run away again from its promises to get on with the job. You notice that China's gleaming office towers are half empty, and that twice as much money is being smuggled out of the country to safe havens overseas by newly rich Communist officials, who are worrying about the future, as is flowing inward in foreign investment. And you wonder why these officials are so nervous.

Could it be because China's political system is even less reformed than its economy? Might they be worried about what will happen to their own wealth, usually acquired through their positions or contacts in the party apparatus, if the 100 million floaters who surge in and out of China's cities casually looking for labor and the 800 million peasants, whose living standards are now falling steadily, were ever to gain a real political voice?

Nothing in China is quite what it seems. Even the vaunted one-child policy is only really enforced in the cities. In many parts of the country, the villages teem with children. As journalist Mark Hersgaard wrote recently, "The truth is that nobody knows exactly how big China's population is, or how fast it is growing."

In India, by contrast, the economic restructuring is well under way, the population growth rate is falling steadily, and without compulsion, and the democratization process was carried out 50 years ago. There has been no famine in India since the British left, whereas tens of millions of Chinese have starved during fanatical interludes like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

As for the chaotic jumble of parties that makes it so hard to give India a stable government, it is actually evidence that the political process is working.

China is an ethnically homogeneous country where over 90 percent of the people are Han Chinese. India, on the other hand, has 14 major languages, every major religion on the planet and hundreds of different castes and ethnic groups. Despite all of which the Indian economy continues to grow, and Indian democracy works.

Voter participation is rising in Indian elections - 62 percent of the population took part in elections last year - and the growth is fastest among traditionally excluded groups: lower castes, women, untouchables and aboriginal peoples. Their demands have splintered the traditional party system, but they actually believe that democracy can make a difference to their lives - and they may be right.

As Yogendra Yadav of the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi put it: "India in the 1990s is perhaps the only functioning democracy where the participation of people of the lower orders, in absolute terms, is higher than that of the elite."

And 10 or 20 years from now we may find that this is a much better basis for lasting economic growth than the Chinese formula of top-down capitalism imposed by corrupt post-ideological Communists.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.