China’s Brittle Development Model

NEW DELHI – After gaining independence from Britain in 1947, India was something of a poster child for the virtues of democracy – in stark contrast with China, which became a Communist dictatorship in 1949. Until the 1970s, it was widely argued that, while both countries suffered from extreme poverty, underdevelopment, and disease, India’s model was superior, because its people were free to choose their own rulers.

With China’s economic boom, however, the counterargument – that a repressive political system is more conducive to development – has gained currency. But while China’s recent performance has been spectacular, India’s model may well stand up better in the long run.

The conversation changed after 1978, when China surged ahead of India economically, causing many to conclude that India’s chaotic democracy was holding back its people. After all, if China’s leaders want to build a new six-lane expressway, they can bulldoze any number of villages. In India, widening a two-lane road could incite popular protests and be tied up in court for years.

That old debate has now taken a new twist with the publication of a new book by Daniel A. Bell, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. Bell argues that Chinese authoritarianism – specifically, its “political meritocracy” – is a viable model of governance, possibly even superior to the democracy of India and the West.