Clem Sunter

The illusion of Chindia

2009-09-30 10:04

The conflation of the words "China" and "India" into "Chindia" is supposed to imply that the two emerging giants have plenty in common. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I visited both countries in 2006. I went to China to formulate future scenarios on the country. I interviewed a range of political and economic observers in Shanghai and Beijing as well as going to Inner Mongolia and Xian. The cherry on the top was a visit to the Central Party School, a few kilometres outside Beijing.

China struck me as a huge corporate enterprise where the board of directors is the politicians, the management is the party and the employees are the people. This model has worked phenomenally well since 1978 when Deng succeeded Mao and introduced the "open door" policy. No other country in modern economic history has ascended the charts so quickly.

Of course the Chinese will tell you that they were the No 1 economy in the world for 1 000 years - from 400AD to 1400AD. The West then took over, but after a brief interval of 600 years the Chinese are about to assume their rightful position again. The date by which they are currently anticipating to overtake America is 2040. Certainly, Chinese culture has remained unchanged for about 5 000 years and never been influenced to any degree by Western culture.

They get very annoyed with Western leaders who criticise them for the absence of democracy and human rights. Their response is that they were the first civilised nation on Earth and they don't go round telling everyone else how to run their lives.

India, by contrast, is a democracy with all the advantages and flaws that go with a democratic society. It takes a long time for policies to be implemented because of the interminable debate on every issue at all levels of government. The development of infrastructure in India is noticeably behind that of China for the same reason.

India is also a lot more Western than China, having absorbed British culture - particularly a love of bureaucracy and cricket. India is more individualistic than China. Whereas China is incredibly competent at replicating Western ideas and technology, and especially projects involving collective effort, India has world-class centres of innovation in fields such as computer software. And then there's Bollywood, India's own version of Hollywood, which makes more movies and produces more stars than any other group of studios in the world.

When I was in India, I had to facilitate a workshop in New Delhi on global warming. It brought together European policy advisers with Indian utility and coal industry chiefs. My job rapidly turned to mediation, because the Indian participants became angry about what they saw as a set of preconceived formulas put on the table by the Europeans. They wanted to make their own inputs and have them considered too.

In that sense, I think the major challenge for the West is how they are going to handle these two new kids on the block who are so different to one another.  The West is so accustomed to having its own way that there is bound to be friction as well as moments of harmony. And then the two new kids have to get along with one another as well. All very interesting.

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