India's China Envy

A woman pushes a stroller in Beijing. i i

hide captionBeijing's modern touches were "awe inspiring" to Indian economist Karan Thapar.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP
A woman pushes a stroller in Beijing.

Beijing's modern touches were "awe inspiring" to Indian economist Karan Thapar.

Muhammed Muheisen/AP

Some citizens of India, the world's largest democracy, find themselves looking jealously at a neighbor with a very different sort of government: China.

Karan Thapar, an Indian columnist, recently took a trip to Beijing. He thought all the shiny buildings and wide, new roads were "awe inspiring." But it was a painful kind of awe.

In the middle of the last century, India and China were in the same place economically. Now China is three times richer. Its childhood malnutrition rate is far lower than India's.

Yes, Indians are free, Thapar says — free to be poor.

Partha Sen, director of the Delhi School of Economics, says that "democracy in an everyday sense, in terms of getting things the poor need, has clearly not functioned. Somehow democracy has failed us."

Democracy moves slowly. People debate things. Infrastructure — roads, water, power — remains underdeveloped.

The Chinese government doesn't have endless parliamentary debates and legal battles. It doesn't ask a lot of questions. It does things — builds roads, trains, power plants.

"China invests a lot in infrastructure," Sen says. "So China, they are on the ball. We are not."

Eswar Prasad is an economist who has lived in both worlds. He used to be the head of the China division at the International Monetary Fund; now he advises India's government.

"We economists think that a benevolent dictator — a benevolent dictator with a heart in the right place — could actually do a lot of good," Prasad says.

The problem, he says, is that the economic record of dictators and single-party states is not very good. China seems to be an exception.

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