China and India, muscular economies whose emergence is re-orientalising the world, may be neighbours, but they are beasts of a different temperament. This divergence was pithily symbolised by the differential nature and outcome of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and its poor relation, the recently held Delhi Commonwealth Games.
To begin with, despite the surface commonalities of being international sporting mega-events, the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games are not in the same league, much as, despite being constantly hyphenated, India and China are not on par. The Olympics is the apotheosis of athletic striving and achievement. In the Commonwealth Games, as was the case in Delhi, the focus is often on the athletes that choose to skip the event, to rest themselves for more prestigious competitions. This reporter was recently asked in Belgium whether the Commonwealth Games (CWG) included any sport other than cricket!
But that Beijing was host to the Olympics and Delhi to the CWG was apposite, putting paid to any fantasies of Chindian equivalence. The average Chinese person is three times richer than his Indian cousin. India’s $1.5 trillion-odd GDP pales in comparison to China’s $5 trillion heft. China’s share in global trade remains five times that of India’s. China adds 105 Gw power in one year, equal to the entire generating capacity of India.
The disparities are stark, even more so when it comes to human development indicators. According to Unicef, 57 million Indian children under five are considered to be malnutritioned, compared to seven million in China. Over 50 per cent of Indian women remain illiterate, in contrast to China’s 13 per cent.
The Chinese find it bewildering, if not humiliating, to be constantly bracketed with their southern neighbour. And there is an influential school of thought that holds that the only explanation for the stream of India-China comparisons lies in an anti-China agenda driven by the West.
The second difference highlighted by the Olympics-CWG experience is the often talked about hardware-software gulf between China and India. The Beijing Olympics dazzled with architectural gymnastics and immaculate stadia that were complete years in advance of the event. By contrast, India was shamed by collapsing ceilings and overpasses just days before the opening ceremony of the Games.
But at least some of India’s “hardware” glitches were related to its superior “software”, including a watchdog media, a vibrant civil society and commodious room for debate and dissent. The sharpest criticisms of the Commonwealth Games came from India’s domestic media. The daily lampooning of the CWG leadership that resulted from exposes of their corruption and incompetence would have been inconceivable in Beijing.
In China, the years leading up to 2008 saw Olympianism emerge as the country’s new religion; any questioning of the Games, the equivalent of blasphemy. With traditional beliefs like Confucianism having been battered by decades of communist struggle and in turn socialism’s egalitarian ideals punctured by the increasingly single-minded pursuit of mammon, the authorities in Beijing used the Olympics as a legitimising ideology which helped justify unpopular decisions.
But nowhere was the discussion, so prominent in India, of the desirability of the Games in a country with millions of citizens still mired in poverty, in evidence. Beijing as a city was architecturally re-wrought, with hundreds of thousands of citizens relocated and displaced. Some committed suicide. None had proper legal recourse. Yet, these alternative narratives were absent from the discourse surrounding the Games. Those who spoke out against were censored, fired and in the worst case scenario, imprisoned.
There was something glorious, at least to someone with China-habituated eyes, about how Suresh Kalmadi, the chairman of the CWG organising committee, was booed during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. In Beijing the loss of face thus suffered by a senior official would have been unbearable to the authorities. In Delhi, it was part of the freewheeling, chaotic melee of Indian democracy.
That the Nobel Prize for Peace was given to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident currently in prison for 11 years for advocating democratic reform in China, as the Commonwealth Games wound down, only served to underline the India-China divide. Dispersed and polyphonic, India is from a Chinese standpoint almost incoherent. And if the ability for a government to mobilise its citizenry on the one hand and deliver on its promises on the other are seen as necessary aspects of ‘coherence,’ the Chinese perspective is understandable.
In China the government indisputably delivered. The infrastructure for the Olympics was built and perfected. Years of ‘sports popularisation’ programmes held in schools and community centres ensured packed stadia in stark contrast to the empty seats characterising the CWG. A huge government-funded effort ensured Beijing top place on the medals table, despite sports lacking a popular base in the country.
In India, the problems of the CWG stemmed from the government, which made exaggerated promises it could not hope to keep and then predictably went on to fail to deliver. This then is the third difference between India and China that the Olympics-CWG differential illuminates. In China, the government is the entrepreneur and the driving engine of the country’s growth. In India the economy has grown in spite rather than because of governmental effort, with the private sector emerging as the success story.
Unlike China, India is not efficient, disciplined, united, and results-oriented. Rather, it is messy, imperfect, fissiparous and process-oriented. But it is capable of producing un-orchestrated moments of inspirational beauty: think the women’s 4x400 metre relay race. And it is in the process of modest transformations: a metro, a modern airport, a slew of new sporting heroes.
It is, however, not China, and nor will it ever be.