To be honest, this article was prompted by China’s harsh treatment of the people of Tibet who would just like to live in peace, free from the heavy hand of Beijing and to practice their Buddhist lifestyle. It is taking place in a glory year for China as the Olympics are held in that country whose government will simply not have anyone spoil their party, not even crusaders for human rights or nationalist respect. Even though such consideration and debate do not rightfully belong to this column – the first in a two-part article on the two fastest-growing economies of the world – such consideration is not entirely irrelevant since economics have social and other consequences as economic power sparks other ambitions and attracts fear if not respect. Indeed this perhaps explains why no country is planning to boycott the Beijing Olympics and why human rights abuses in China are discussed in only the most veiled terms.
In Guyana we must never ignore human rights issues anywhere, but an equally important consideration in any discussion on China and India is the importance of the right mix of policies to spur economic growth and development. Indeed the experiences in China and India are not entirely dissimilar to us here where we attempted to practice an extreme form of socialism beginning with the Sophia Declaration in 1973 and ending with Hoyte’s version of Glasnost, his embrace of the IMF and Cheddi Jagan’s continuation of the programme despite his personal and his party’s antagonistic position to the IMF. We too experienced good growth for some years but this fell off amid other conflicts and the economy has survived in great measure because of debt write-offs.
Reclaiming their rightful place
When in 2006 the Prime Minister of India proclaimed that India and China are on the way to reclaiming their rightful places in the world economy, the world did not see that as some idle boast or threat but rather a simple factual statement. America and the West called for globalisation and China and India opened their doors, not completely, but enough to cause huge consternation and fear among segments of the American population at the way these two countries are shifting the tectonic plates of the world economy. What makes the story of China and India is not only their similarities but their differences – ideologically, historically, culturally and economically. One is dictatorial while the other is democratic; the court system of one would be considered too free by the other; China is Communist but pro-business while India is free-market but at times highly suspicious of business; one emphasizes its human infrastructure while the other promotes the low wages of its people; one still operates with a Five-Year Development Plan while the other seems to worship not any omnipotent, all powerful, many handed deity but the invisible hand made famous by Adam Smith.
But it is not the differences that cause leading journalists like Lou Dobbs to worry – rather it is their similarities – up to recently they were considered part of the Third World, too large and too poor to succeed, over-populated and almost unmanageable. Yet before the world could appreciate the release of the latent powers of numbers, India and China have become the fastest-growing economies giving them the claim to superpower status in less, far less than twenty years. It is true that they will never be able to reclaim the position they held in 1600 when their combined economies accounted for more than half of the world’s economic output or even their position in the late nineteenth century as two of the largest economies in the world.
Several things intervened between then and now, including the meteoric rise of the United States of America, which with a workforce driven by a lust for things material and powered by enterprising migrants escaping from the famine in Ireland and war in Europe grabbed the lead in agriculture, apparel, and the high technologies of the era, such as steam engines, the telegraph, and electric lights. There were too the Marshall Plan in Europe and the rise of Japan and South Korea in Asia.
Yet, the decline in both absolute and relative terms of China and India had little to do with such external forces but was directly the result of inward-looking yet adventurous policies by these countries often on the brink of war, with daggers drawn and guns pointing at each other. For several decades political considerations dominated and shaped domestic policy as the countries were held spell-bound by their history of invasion and colonialism and the philosophies of great founding leaders – Mao Tse-tung in the case of China and Mahatma Gandhi for India, one a revolutionary who believed that power lay in the barrel of a gun the other a believer in the principle of non-violence. What would these great leaders think about the country they either killed or died for?
Ten years after announcing the formation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Chairman Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward caused the death of 30 million in four years of famine while his Cultural Revolution in 1966 saw the decimation of the intellectual and bourgeois class, the closure of universities and destruction of books. His policies according to the author Robyn Meredith in the book The Elephant and the Dragon, may have succeeded in the creation of a society in which private property was practically non-existent but also in a generally downward spiral in the well-being of the country and the people.
Signal left and turn right
The transformation began with the rise to power of Deng Xiaoping who beginning the reform in the countryside, broke up the collectives and introduced the rudiments of a market economy. Over 125 million jobs were created by 20 million entrepreneurs who rediscovered the capitalist instinct of the Chinese. While significant the changes were not nearly enough and it was time to look outward. Instead of heading to Europe and North America, however, Deng went into his own backyard, Malaysia and Singapore, whose Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew he admired deeply and with whom several learning visits were exchanged. His “special economic zones” were characterized by employer-friendly labour laws and low taxes all the while formally remaining loyal to socialism. There is the joke of Deng being asked by his chauffeur which way to turn as they reached a junction. Deng, the quintessential pragmatist instructed the driver: “Signal left and turn right.”
Now fifty years on, the transformation is like the world has never seen. What makes the situation even more mind-boggling is what has taken place within the past decade. In 2000, 30% of the world’s toys came from China. In 2005 that grew to 75%. One out of every three pairs of shoes made today is the product of Chinese labour and between 1996 to 2004 exports of electronic equipment had increased 800%, from $20 billion to $160 billion. When last did we hear that Small Is Beautiful, the title of a series of books by E. F. Schumacher.
Pained by the experiences of colonialism and exploitation in which the masses of India lived in abject poverty while as a colony the country was the gem on the Royal Crown, Gandhi was a great believer and practitioner of economic independence while opposing mass industrialisation, preferring traditional means of production, symbolised by the spinning wheel on the Indian Flag. Even after his assassination in 1948, the Congress Party of India, first under Jawaharlal Nehru and later other members of the dynasty continued the policy of self-sufficiency, shutting India from the outside world, equally difficult for Indian producers to export as for foreigners to invest in the vast country. One of India’s best known companies, the Tata Group, formed in 1868 became a key part of the country’s freedom movement and out of its nationalist commitment built its mills to supply the steel for the country’s successive five-year development plans.
The productive capacity of the country was, however, kept in check by a rigid policy of licensing so that even a manufacturer of motor bikes could only produce as many as his licence permitted. With socialist instincts running through its veins, the government found its finances in perpetual deficit as it made efforts to create jobs which were in turn protected by costly guarantees that were a severe strain on companies. Ironically, it took the cataclysmic second oil shock sparked by the 1991 Gulf War to cause India to awake to the reality that having 330 million people, or 40% of the population, in total poverty was neither moral nor compatible with sustaining its position as the world’s largest democracy. Narasimha Rao who became Prime Minister after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, appointed the economist Manmohan Singh, current Prime Minister, as Finance Minister. Unlike China, India took the route of the IMF, devaluing the currency, removing import and export restrictions and expensive bureaucracy.
It is the result of the vision of these leaders and the number and energy of their people that is causing such consternation among Westerners and Americans in particular who see their solo superpower role under threat from the rapid growth of these two economies. For China the growth rate has been averaging 10% per annum while India’s at 6% may seem modest except when it is compared with the 3% in the US and other western countries. Indeed the admired has become the admirer and Lee Kuan Yew told a Forbes Conference in 2006 that he has been visiting China “every year and each time he is surprised at the rapid changes”.
These two countries both have young populations, high Asian saving rates and have put in place measures which barring some catastrophe can keep growth in the high single-digit range for decades. Admittedly they have come from a low economic base but with the substantial catching up they still have to do, there is no reason for them to slow down.
To be concluded next week.