China's Humane Development - and India's Tragic Path

by John Walsh, November 27th, 2009


China's literacy rate is 90.9%; India's is 61%. 95.1% of Chinese males are literate and 86.5% of females (2000 census). But only 73.4% of Indian males and 47.8% of the females can read and write. This last is quite astonishing - less than half the female Indian population can read and write in the 21st century.

The facts on literacy cited above are to be found in that most unimpeachable of sources, the CIA World Factbook, which defines literacy as the percentage of the population over 15 that can read and write. (There is more recent data, which puts the Chinese literacy rate at over 96%, but we can stick with the CIA data since the differences are small.) The India-China comparison is of interest for three reasons. First, India and China are often equated in the Western press as equivalent, both great developmental successes - but they are not the same, as the literacy rates indicate and as we shall see below. Second, these November weeks are the weeks of China and India, with Obama's ill-starred expedition to China and the Indian PM's excursion to the US. Third, the US has been developing India as an ally and surrogate for decades to bring China low, although such a criminal strategy, which would involve untold suffering across Asia, seems increasingly dubious and perhaps downright absurd. (More on that absurd and criminal strategy later). So let us compare the two countries in some more detail.

On the face of it India and China would seem to be quite comparable. China is, after all, the most populous nation on earth, with about 1.3 billion humans, and India is second, with approximately 1.1 billion. China won Liberation by force with Mao's Communist revolution in 1949 and India was "granted" Independence by Great Britain at about the same time, in 1947. At that time India's GDP was estimated to be about twice that of China's. But today China's GDP is about 3.6 times that of India's. The per capita GDP's for China and India are $6000 and $2900, respectively, as estimated by the CIA in 2006. 25% of Indians live below the poverty line whereas 8% of Chinese do. For comparison, 12% of the US population lives below the poverty line - worse than China, but not so bad as India. (Only on the CIA's Gini index of family income inequality does China do worse than India, 46.9 and 36.8, respectively - but China there is pretty much the same as the U.S., with its score of 45.

What then puts China so far ahead? The conventional wisdom informs us that it is all due to the reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping beginning in 1978 and accelerated greatly in the early 90s with Deng's symbolic "southern tour." On that PR jaunt, Deng put his stamp of approval on the export driven economy which had its first Chinese home in the southeastern coastal cities and which has now made China the greatest of the East Asian "tiger" economies, about to surpass the first tiger, Japan, in GDP.

But is this piece of conventional wisdom the whole story? The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) uses three important indices to chart the effectiveness of development. These are the Human Development Index (HDI), the Gender Related Development Index (GDI and the Human Poverty Index (HPI). Each of these is a number between 0 and 1, and the greater the number the better a nation is doing. The third is given as a %, and a higher number indicates less poverty. China and India fare thus:

HDI: China - 0.745 India- 0.595

GDI: China - 0.741 India- 0.572

HPI: China - 13.2% India- 31.4%1

The first of these the HDI is the oldest going back to the 1970s and combines three categories in the measure - long and healthy life; knowledge; and a decent standard of living, this last including GDP. Clearly China leads India in the HDI and the gap was growing at least up to the time of the 2004 report from which these numbers are taken. But most interestingly the gap existed in 1975 when the HDIs for China and India were 0.523 and 0.491, respectively. Recall that this was the year that Mao Zedong died, and the reforms were only a gleam in Deng's eye.

So why the difference? One can only hypothesize about these matters, but this writer would point to one big difference. China by virtue of its Revolution completed Liberation from the Western Imperial powers in 1949. From that point on China could go its own way. It certainly made great mistakes, most notably and tragically in the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s. But there were no longer any strings attached.

And what about India? We can get a good idea from John Pilger's superb essay "Shining India."2 Pilger quotes Nehru writing ruefully on the legacy of empire, "Entangled in its meshes, we have struggled in vain to rid ourselves of this past inheritance and start afresh on a different basis." (Italics mine.) Today Pilger notes that India's burdensome legacy from Imperialism has a new life in the modern imperial cult of neo-liberalism with the US as its new master. And with the suffocating embrace of the U.S. (and Israel) accelerated in the 90s, things have been left pretty much the same.

The dramatic differences between India and China outlined above are not reflected in the mainstream media. There the two countries equated as fast developing and making their mark on the world. Little distinction is drawn between them - except for the relentless reminder that India is the "biggest democracy in the world," just as Israel is the "only democracy in the Middle East. No mention is made of the differences in developmental pathways on the billions of human beings in the two nations. But the bottom line is that India is still very much caught in the clutches of Empire and as a result it is in a sad state in many ways. And Empire will use India mercilessly to maintain its sway in Asia no matter the human cost.


John V. Walsh can be reached at

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