China Road: India vs. China

I’ve been reading Rob Gifford’s China Road as I head into this country for the first time.  (Originally from Britain, Gifford spent 20 some years in China as a journalist.  The book is about the people he meets during his final months in the east, as he treks across the country on the great China Road, route 312.)  His questions about individualism in China are intriguing and I use them as one way to begin to ask questions about public space.

“In spite of all the change in China, the western world is still stuck in its dangerously outdated, black-and-white view of the country….The Chinese have always been the faceless masses in the Western mind….they have never been seen in the west as individuals.  Now, though, individualism is emerging in China, as people take more control of their own lives.  Chinese people, especially in cities, have choices, and these choices are creating a whole new generation that is unknown to many people in the West.”

Will public space, typically envisioned as a democratic and egalitarian space, reap the benefits of this new generation?  Are Chinese models destined to transform into their western counterparts?

Gifford also, very timely, compares the two largest new city builders: the economies of India and China.  I thought this was very relevant, and accurate, at this point along the journey:

“China and India are both huge countries, with populations of more than a billion people, trying to lift tens of millions of farmers out of poverty.  Is the more ordered, government-backed, scorching-growth rate model of one-party China a better one for a developing country than the slightly chaotic, laissez-faire, slower-growth rate, democratic model of India?

Most westerners seem to side with India, I think, simply because of that word, ‘democracy.’  Certainly, democracy has provided checks and balances in India that have prevented the crazy political and economic campaigns that destroyed China in the 1950s and 60s.  That in itself was enough to win the argument for India in some areas during those years.

But it feels to me as if the word democracy leads us to attribute certain advantages to India that do not necessarily exist.  Similarly, the word ‘dictatorship’ leads us to attribute terrible things to China, that do not necessarily exist there either.  We judge because of the images in our minds and not because of the reality on the ground.


India, like China, is hugely corrupt, and although Indian peasants can help to kick the highest leaders out of office, it appears that the new Indian leaders who come in each time consistently fail to lift the millions out of poverty.

You’re twice as likely to lose a child in India before the age of five.  If you are Indian, there is only a 60% chance that you can read.  If you are Chinese, the chance is 93%.  ….  Income per capita is double in China what it is in India…. Life expectancy is lower in India….the list goes on.

China’s infrastructure is decades ahead of India’s.  In 2005, China invested seven dollars in infrastructure for every dollar that India spent.

In short, the Chinese government has till now, in some areas of life, undeniably delivered basic services and provisions in a more complete way than the Indian government.

It is admirable that the Communist Party has been able to implement extensive vaccination programmes and literacy drives… the flip side is that the government can push through policies that are not necessarily to the benefit of ordinary Chinese people.  It can still decide how many children its citizens may have.  It can destroy historic parts of ancient cities for redevelopment.  And it can approve and build projects such as the Yangtze River Dam, which required the relocation of more than a million people…..

In the end, though, there is one crucial difference between China and India, and a perfect example of it is coated in black tarmac and runs east and west through Hefei.  China is a brutal place to live if you are on the bottom rung, but there is an exit.  And, just as important, there is a real possibility of a job at the other end.  India’s 1.1 billion population is catching up with China’s 1.3 billion.  But India only has about 10 million manufacturing jobs, compared with about 150 million in China.  So there are more opportunities in China to improve your life.”

Of course I recommend the full text.


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