Over the past decade, the East has witnessed a phenomenal rise in prosperity, a trend beyond the locus of call centres and sportswear, and become a hub for world commerce. China and India – which together account for more than a third of the planet’s population – have finally acquired a fairer share of the world’s wealth and, on everything from money matters and military power to cuisine and climate change, they have moved significantly north of the table. Their emergence has brought undreamed of financial opulence; but to my mind, the journey is not quite complete.
In 2010, China officially became the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan, while India’s exemplary performance in its recovery from the recession announced its intentions to the global economy. Yet, for all the glittering growth rates of these two rising nations, there must be a reason why we cannot yet say conclusively that they have risen.
In a recent interview with The Times, a young well-to-do Chinese couple discussed what life was like for the nouveau riche in China today. They bragged about their trendy new apartment, designer clothes and the first class private education their daughter was receiving; but when asked what they wanted for their daughter most of all, they responded, “Canadian citizenship.”
Indeed, it seems politics are the undercutting force in China’s development; until she can abscond from such autocratic restraints – the lack of civil rights (and Facebook) or state accountability and one party system – the country seems confined to second best.
The challenge for China was always whether it would be able to instigate economic reform without changing its social policy. State-led capitalism that relies on cheap manufacturing and little innovation can only take a country so far. Concordantly, a lack of variation in the system means that intellectual creativity and innovation are often shunned in favour of conformity and imitation. Essentially, China has created immense wealth without bringing happiness, security, and, overall, a well-being to its citizens.
Of course, the world’s most populous country should always be an economic power house of sorts; hence the recent economic growth should be interpreted as more of a correction rather than a unique phenomenon. But on-going environmental concerns, an ageing population, competition from other, more democratic risers, internal dissent and a culture that doesn’t encourage risk will continue to slow economic growth and leave the elites perturbed.
In theory, China can change course and embrace democratisation in order to ensure future economic growth is more market-led. But the country’s history informs us that these changes are highly unlikely.
Similarly, India has its own demons born out of domesticity. For all the potential, that is to say a sub-continental scale work force, and a pluralistic political system which serves dually to diversify culture and isolate crises state specifically, India remains hampered by a problem that economics alone cannot fix.
I’m not talking about the rule of babus, soul sapping bureaucracy or the free reign cows enjoy in bustling city centres, but rather a persisting sociological prejudice from which the world’s largest democracy struggles to escape – the caste system.
More than 50 years after caste discrimination was outlawed in India, millions of ‘untouchable’ low-caste Hindus remain subject to daily petty humiliations, police violence and institutionalised narrow-mindedness. Despite India’s massive economic advances in the last decade, it is estimated that a crime is still committed against a Dalit every 20 minutes.
Dalit children are still forced to sit in segregated sections in schools while their parents are often denied a range of basic rights, including access to water, the right to stage marriage processions and entry to polling booths.
What is puzzling about the caste system is that it has endured without any legal force behind it. Unlike slavery, under which white land owners actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution that has resisted half-a-century worth of ham-handed government efforts to eradicate it.
There are two causes for this. Firstly, psychologically speaking, it is difficult for the higher castes to stop considering themselves ‘higher’ than the rest of the populous. Accustomed to years of privilege, there is still a lasting sense of entitlement however misguided, amongst the upper echelons of Indian society.
The second reason is seated in political pragmatism. India’s largesse necessitates a pluralistic rule which in turn leads political parties to use caste to polarize voters in elections. Thus, divisions between multiple castes are actively encouraged. While half-hearted parliamentary schemes still reserve some positions for lower caste people, disproportionate membership in congress suggests it is little more than tokenism.
India’s caste system was abolished legally in the 1960s, but its influence remains heavily entrenched socially. Cross-caste marriages are still taboo, fair skin is still a commodity and there’s a reason Mr. Binu chose to make a break for Britain.
Of course, to suggest India’s economy is not a potential world beater would be nothing short of imprudent. But for India to achieve her lofty ambitions as an international example there is still work to be done. The country must strike a balance between economics and sociology; attitudes must be revised and outdated religious restrictions must be discharged.
China and India are and will be powers – but the next great superpowers they are not, nor ever likely to be, without serious social reform.