Political Promise

“The Big Asian Elephant In The Room”

In Oliver Cardinali on October 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Olly Cardinali charts the emergence of India and China as economic superpowers in light of the two country’s rather peppered histories.

They were giving it out for free for a while? How could I turn it down? That first one was so good. Now I find myself buying it every Friday. The hours just fly by because of it. My time is tighter. My wallet is lighter. But I cannot turn my back on it. I am Olly Cardinali, and I read The Economist.

I may be guilty of hyperbole in that opening statement; although it is amusing that The Economist is following a similar marketing strategy to drug dealers! However, anybody familiar with The Economist, or that has received a free copy recently, may have noticed that it has dedicated much discussion to the ‘Contest of the Century’ (their cover on 19th August 2010) and ‘How India’s Growth will Outpace China’ (their cover on 23rd October 2010). It is a ‘contest’, and arguably hyperbolical to call it such, which deserves discussion. It is also a debate especially apt at present considering the organisational debacle that has spoilt the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, in comparison to the awesome spectacle of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The Economist argues that we should not be blinded by China’s current economic and organisational triumphs and look at the long term factors that affect economic growth, suggesting that India is better placed to overtake China in the long run. It is an argument I personally agree with, but I do not intend to summarise an article you can Google. I want to suggest an historical analogy, which loosely fits their argument, to explain why I agree with The Economist’s conclusion. However, I also want to ask myself if I agree with The Economist because I actually believe that India will overtake China and become a dominant world power? Or is it actually because I want to believe this? And what does this all mean for the West?

As a historian, when I look at the current situation that India and China are in now, I cannot help but compare them to the similar situation of two aspiring “great” powers in the Eighteenth Century; Great Britain and France. Both sets of powers had come away from periods of considerable turmoil the century before, whether it was civil war, deep religious conflict or revolution. Both sets of powers were witnessing rapid economic and commercial change that unbalanced their political systems and saw a burgeoning of a large middle class. Both sets of powers were regional rivals divided by a geographical obstacle, the English Channel in one case and the Himalayas in the other.

 India, like Great Britain had, has begun the century with a smaller population, a less developed economy and with greater internal hostilities: the suppressed Catholic minority and radicals such as the Jacobites in unruly Ireland and Scotland upset Britain politically; Pakistan, Kashmir, Sir Lanka, Nepal and the radicals among the Muslim minority are unsettling peace in India. China, like France had, has begun the century with a greater population, a more developed economy but with greater external hostilities due to its own expansionism: the Dutch, German and Italian states often resisted the hegemony France in the eighteenth century antagonised by the Hapsburg Empire and Great Britain; China is involved in territorial disputes with India but also Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Bhutan, the Philippines, Malaysia and sovereign disputes over Tibet and Taiwan, which China’s Western rivals have intervened in.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century France had far superior commercial muscle than Britain as China has greater economic strength than India at present. France had far more resources to call upon too, just as China does. Many respected politicians, diplomats, economists, commentators, entrepreneurs throughout the “known” world looked upon France and not Britain as the single economic giant of Europe, just as China is seen throughout the world as the single great Asian giant now. Yet India is far more democratic than China, less authoritarian with a far less centrally controlled economy; Britain was more democratic by eighteenth century standards than France, was not absolutist, with a more laissez-faire economy. It is this latter comparison that is the key to the assumption India shall overtake China economically as Great Britain eventually did over France.

 The Economist explains economic indicators for India’s advantages, notably its speed of growth and its younger population but does suggest that politics will play a part too. The lesson that history has taught us is that the wealth makes individuals independent. The expanding bourgeoisie in France could afford education, they read radical texts such as those of Jean-Jacque Rousseau; they could afford to travel, they could witness the greater freedoms in England and the Netherlands; they could afford to consume luxuries, they were empowered by the freedom of commercial choice but were excluded from political choice.

The expanding middle class in China are being educated in American and Europeans universities, witnessing liberal democratic values first hand and engaging with western political thought; many Chinese have the luxury of consumer choice but not of political choice. India, like eighteenth century Britain, does find that being the world’s largest democracy causes administrative chaos, as the Commonwealth Games has emphasised, but its citizens are politically empowered.

Economic and (democratic) political progress have always seemed to dance together in tandem, one has rarely been able to keep separated from the other for long. The French Revolution cannot be simply explained by the political exclusion of the bourgeoisie alone. Nevertheless, undoubtedly the exponential widening of the politically conscious public generated tension between the rulers and those who they rule over, without consent; this has contributed to unprecedented upheaval in France after 1789 and has accounted for many other less extraordinary political crises before and since, throughout the world.

I hope that nobody wishes a revolt in China invoking the comparable chaos to that of the French Revolution, but history tells us that political reform will be necessary in China to avoid a similar fate (the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was one such sign). Economic progress brings greater choice to consumer and the desire for choice will not stop at politics. Many eighteenth century French political theorists thought that ‘Enlightened Absolutism’, installing absolute power in an educated monarch, would be the best form of government; it turned out to be proved an oxymoron. Will the concept of single party, authoritarian, ‘State Capitalism’ prove to be an oxymoron too? How long can China ride two horses before they fall off?

Or do I represent the West and just want China to fall off? The developed world holds its values of democracy and freedom very dearly to its heart; China, recently having become the second biggest economy in the world, is an upstart that is challenging the foundations that the Western world has (mostly) been built on. The ideological outlook of The Economist, just as many of us in the West, will want the freer, more democratic, India to “win” ‘Contest of the Century’. This will reaffirm our own belief that freedom and democracy is the pinnacle of progress.

However, in the eighteenth century, the relatively free and democratic values of Great Britain (an aristocratic constitutional monarchy) and the Netherlands (an under siege republican oligarchy) were an irregularity, while the United States of America (est. 1776) was a socio-economic anomaly. Few thought in the eighteenth century that anything but Monarchy would be the mode political system of the future, throughout the world. What if China does not fall off its two horses? What if it is altering the politico-economic status quo, just as the United States of America once did? What if authoritarian state capitalism is the future? … 这就是生活, which, according to Google Translate, means c’est la vie.

The big Asian elephant in the room, is what happens to the environment if the nearly four billion people of Asia begin to live at the levels of consumption of the just over one billion people in Europe and North America are now? The most fervent economic libertarians from India may say that the market should be allowed to adjust the global economy accordingly; the most committed state capitalists from China may say that governments should be allowed to adjust the global economy accordingly. A compromise of both ideologies will be suggested by those sitting somewhere in the middle like myself, likely sitting somewhere else to the West, but none of us can be absolutely sure how it can be done. We Westerners may have to soon accept that we have to give up our current way of life on our own terms, or that big Asian elephant might go and trample all over it, regardless of whether India or China “wins”.

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