Skip to main content

Foreword to Guy Sorman's book, Year of the Rooster (Full Circle, 2007)

Submitted by admin on Mon, 03/19/2007 - 08:17

After writing a stimulating book on India, Guy Sorman has now written a provocative one on China. China has woken and the world is trembling, but the 'idea of a powerful China submerging the rest of the world is far fetched', says Sormon. Many Western observers, who write on China or India, dwell on imagined countries of the past. Guy Sormon is different. He writes about the ordinary people of today and of 'living' nations and not about mystical fantasies of cultivated Confucian mandarins. The reality that he is sees is disturbing and depressing.  The most touching portrait in this book is that of 85 year old Madam Feng Lanrui, who sitting upright in a public cafe, reminds us that 'Democracy is a value common to all civilizations, the undivided legacy of mankind as a whole'. At a time when 'modernism' is not fashionable in the world, it is nice to be reminded about its greatest legacy. Those who confuse modernization and westernization forget that the West too was once pre-modern and pre-democratic.

One of China's mistakes, according to Sormon, has been not to 'de-Maoise' the country. Hence, oppression by the Chinese state continues. In a lesser way, it is also the mistake of India's reformers. They have not come clean and told the people that the old socialist path of Jawarharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi's, while well-intentioned, was wrong. It led to statism and the License Raj, and this has been the chief cause of our missed opportunities for four decades after Independence. Hence, our reformers today find it difficult to sell their reforms to the people. Blaming him for his economic mistakes does not, of course, not take away from Nehru's great legacy in nurturing the invaluable institutions of democracy.

I must confess that I am one of those whom Sormon holds guilty for being taken in by the myth of contemporary China. Like most Indians, I am hugely impressed by the amazing infrastructure that the present rulers of China have created, and secretly wish that we might have done the same. For me the best thing about China's rise is that it takes our minds off Pakistan, even for a fleeting moment. We really must learn to ignore Pakistan and heed China. Pakistan pulls us down into an abyss of religious fundamentalism, terrorism, and identity politics. China will lift us up, firing our ambition for better roads, ports, and electric power.

Ten years ago I used to either admire or fear China. Now, I am more relaxed. Both our economies are among the world's fastest, and both are on the verge of solving their age-old economic problem. China's success is induced by the state whereas India's achievement is due to its private economy. For 25 years China has been growing at a rate that is two percentage points faster than India, and hence, it is now 20 years ahead. It is thanks to a purposive state that has reformed faster and invested in infrastructure. Sormon does not give the Chinese sufficient credit for this. Moreover, while we have 'law' in India, China has 'order'. This too Sormon glosses over. You need both law and order, and hopefully China will get law in the future and India will become more orderly.

Our different pasts explain a great deal about us. In the last hundred years China suffered devastating violence while India was spoiled by amazing peace. China's 20th century opened with the ravages of warlords; the Nationalists followed with their butchery in the twenties. Japan's invasion of Manchuria in the thirties made our British Raj look angelic. In the forties came Mao's massacres as Communists took power. Mao's ambitions sacrificed tens of millions in the Great Leap Forward in the fifties and brought more misery during the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1978 that the Chinese breathed easy. And then they went on to create the most amazing spectacle of economic growth in human history.

Saints, on the other hand, created India (in Andre Malraux's words) and this happened in the shadows of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. Not only did we escape the World Wars, but we became free without shedding an ounce of blood, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi. Yes, half a million died in the Partition riots, but it was not state sponsored violence. Because we were addicted to peace, perhaps that is why we were able to become the world's largest democracy. Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's socialism slowed us down for decades, but they did not wipe out the private economy with its invaluable institutions of banks, corporate laws, and the stock market. So, when we broke free from our socialist shackles we had this advantage over China.

This is why India's recent economic success is driven by its entrepreneurs. The best thing that India's bungling government is doing is slowly getting out of the way of its dynamic citizens through reforms. India is spawning highly competitive private companies that are likely to become global brand names in the future. China's miracle, on the other hand, is based on the success of state enterprises and foreign capital. China's government is, in fact, suspicious of its entrepreneurs. Only 10 per cent of China's banking credit goes to the private sector, although it employs 40 per cent of its labour.

Nothing quite illustrates the difference between India and China as the two reports that appeared in my newspaper last year. The first said that Karnataka's state government in south India has still not decided if English ought to be taught in primary schools despite huge popular pressure from parents. In the second report, a Karnataka minister, on a busy visit to China, announced: 'Members of the Standing Committee of the Jiangsu Provincial People's Congress have invited the Karnataka government to teach English in its primary schools' in pursuit of the Chinese objective to make every Chinese literate in English by the 2008 Olympics.

It does seem bizarre that the state, whose capital is Bangalore and is the symbol of India's success in the global economy, and which derives its competitive advantage from its mastery of the English language, should remain hostage to the deep insecurities of its vernacular chauvinists. This is after more than fifteen years when English was banned from its primary schools after a court judgment. As for the Chinese, I am confident they will win plenty of medals at the next Olympics, but I don't think learning English will be quite as easy. Even though I cannot help but admire their ambition, I console myself that India has been spared their earlier ambitions at social engineering, notably the Cultural Revolution.

Professor David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, predicts that India will soon have the world's largest number of English speakers. 'But what will happen to our mother tongues?' is the question that Indians keep asking. This is the insecurity behind the vigorous debate over teaching English in primary schools in many Indian states. Such a public debate would be inconceivable in China, and is symbolic of the difference between our noisy democracy and an authoritarian China, which is single-mindedly resolved to teach English to all Chinese by the next Olympic Games.

After reading this extraordinary book, I realised how lucky we are in India to have the gift of democracy. That democracy preceded capitalism in India makes us unique as the rest of the world did it the other way around". No one quite knows how one acquires the 'miracle of democracy'—but it seems to make all the difference, according to Sormon. Our curious historic inversion in India explains, for example, why our economic reforms are so painfully slow and tortured. It takes us five years to build a road that it takes only a year in China. But the 'million negotiations' of India's democracy also mean that while our path into the future is likely to be slower, it will be surer, and the Indian way of life—whatever that may be—is more likely to survive.

India too could grow faster and wipe out poverty faster. Yes, democracy does slow us down, but it is wrong to blame our sins of misgovernance on democracy. Our soft underbelly is our incompetent state governments who do not govern. If it came to a trade-off, however, I don't think anyone in India would give up our democracy for a two-percentage point higher growth rate. We have waited 3000 years for this moment to wipe out poverty, and if needed we will wait another twenty years and do it with democracy. And frankly, life is more than just a race between India and China.