Whither Control?

The scene says it all: a group of Chinese and Indians engaged in a discussion about the potential of their respective countries to procure and maintain high growth rates for long periods in order to transform their societies.Two nations that have for decades grown rapidly, comparing notes and defending their ways of being. The conference heats up at moments and sometimes appears to be a confrontation not only of two modi operandi, but also of two ways of being. The two economies have grown at more than 7% annually for years (and the Chinese much more than that) and, however, what is noteworthy is the discussion on the potential of continuity. Observing the forum, I felt a little like Cantinflas in the film in which, without being aware of it, he ends up sitting at a table of people he does not know and can only ask himself, “And what am I doing here?”

The discussion among these scholarly and academic Asians is most interesting, in addition to revealing. But above all it provides many teachings for us. Evidently, the history and circumstances of each nation are different from ours, but not for this reason do they lack offering a relevant contrast for our own process. China has followed a reform drive to the death, motivated in good measure by their political elite’s fear of losing power. The economic growth has satisfied their population, thus allowing it to avoid significant political changes, a situation that has lead it to confront any challenge in heartless fashion. No obstacle is too large to tackle because the alternative to reform, the Chinese seem to think, would entail the fall of the government. The case of India is quite different: there, a democratic country, approval of any and every change, however small, has necessitated legislative discussions and votes that on occasion appeared to last an eternity. However, once approved, they enjoy full legitimacy.

Our case is peculiar for one very different reason: even when enjoying full control, the PRIist system never had the disposition to reform (which is telling about the claim of its current leaders about what they would do if elected). Also, now that we live in a democratic context we do not possess the capacity or inclination to do so. That is, we were not successful when we had a system similar to that of the Chinese nor have we been able to with a system akin to that of India. Where, I ask myself, is the core difference?

China and India are changing at an accelerated pace, following radically distinct pathways. True to its history of centralized control, the Communist Party being no more than its most recent reincarnation, China has achieved constructing a development strategy from the pinnacle of power. Contrariwise, India is a complex nation, characterized by hundreds of ethnicities, religions, traditions, and political parties, which impose very diverse social and political dynamics that have in turn generated an inexorably decentralized political system. Control in China lies at the center, in India in the legitimacy of the system in its entirety. In our case control dematerialized.

The statement within the discussion that appeared to me to be the most powerful was that the common denominator in both societies resides in the process of decolonization of the mind that the two nations have experienced. While for decades or centuries both populations perceived themselves as victims of exploitation by imperial powers, their true transformation lies in the freedom that their populations have won. The Indians, affirmed Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, “have thrown off the colonial mentality and now only dream of being rich but, more importantly, are sure that the latter is possible”. Another voice described Radú, a young man undesirous of learning any language other than “Windows” and solely interested in knowing the 400 key words to pass the TOEFL examination in English for aspirants to study in the U.S. And of prime importance: “the present generation no longer sees the past as an era of greatness, but rather looks to the future as a source of infinite opportunities”. On hearing this, I thought that the day that we achieve this “we’ve got it made”.

What’s interesting in comparing China and India is that they place before us two absolutely distinct routes. China “possesses order but not legality because the laws perennially emanate from the king”, while India “has too many laws but not much order, but the laws are always above the emperor”. With these words, one Chinese scholar differentiated between these two nations: China has a weak society but a strong government, while the opposite characterizes India. The Chinese government freed up forces and resources to achieve high growth rates, while the average Indian functions with one hand tied behind their back due to the power of the bureaucracy and the diverse interest groups. A few reforms initiated in the nineties opened opportunities never before in existence that made yearly average growth rates of nearly 7% possible. One asks oneself what will happen when the Indians are freed from these hindrances, because at the pace they’re going they’ll leave everyone else in the dust…

It is evident that Mexico is unlike these two nations, but both furnish lessons that are worth understanding because they not only explain many of our limitations, but also could aid us in beginning to confront them. The Chinese come-hell-or-high-water action mode was possible in the PRIist era because there was the capacity of action and the concentration of power and resources that made them theoretically feasible. However, none of this actually took place, at least not after the sixties. Instead of reforming, our way was to go backwards, privilege special interests, and limit the potential of development: precisely opposite the Chinese approach. The Indian model, if that is what this nation’s social and political structure may be termed, has not impeded the adoption of reforms nor their implementation. What both nations have indeed had is a clear sense of direction at the head of their respective governments.

If there is a valuable lesson in the Indian case it is that the core factor of change lies in the leadership: the capacity of bonding wills behind a transforming project. In India the change has been modest but its consequences, radical. None of the latter has been greater than that of achieving changing the population’s attitudes. A population desirous of winning entertains a much greater probability of procuring this. Thus, our worst enemy does not reside in political or legislative paralysis (or, even in the reforms themselves) but rather in the pessimism that has overtaken the population. This is where the Chinese and the Indians have much to teach us.