A week-long visit to China last week turned out to be one of the most thought-provoking trips I have undertaken in recent years, and one which ended with a big personal “eureka” moment. I have travelled to China a few times in the last 10 years. Yet, this one had unusually diverse interactions, and an unusual exposure to modern and ancient China at the same time. The diversity of ideas came through a set of individuals that included the Mayor of Shanghai; an ex-Chancellor of Germany; a recent Nobel winner in Economics; the scion of a leading Italian 1 billion+ euro business group who now spends more and more time in China as it provides him and his retail business greater excitement and bigger opportunities than any other country on this planet; an Indian architect friend, who happened to be in Shanghai in the same week; and an extremely pleasant and articulate Chinese tourist guide among others.
The exposure to the ancient and modern China also came through a kaleidoscope of images that ranged from a view of the Shanghai skyline from the 73rd floor room of the hotel I stayed in and its bar on the 87th floor, the spectacular night-view of the even taller (adjoining) Shanghai World Financial Center, and the round-the-clock hum of construction right next door on Shanghai Tower which, when commissioned in 2014, will become the world’s second tallest building, the magnificence of the Bund and its night-time lighting, the maglev connecting the city to the airport, a view of the upcoming Shanghai Expo complex, the Nanjing Road (West) development in conjunction with the redevelopment of the older Nanjing Road (East), the Qin Shi Huang Mausoleum complex housing the Terracotta Warriors dating back to 210 BC, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda dating back to 652 AD and the more “modern” Xian City Wall that was initially built in the 7th century AD and then magnificently expanded in the 14th century.
The “learning” from this visit was then also completed by the otherwise unimpressive English language dailies which carried some really interesting bits of information such as China’s budgeted expense on innovative technology development in 2009 ($21.4 billion), the $85-billion investment in energy (including solar and wind) in 2009 and the $32-billion high-speed rail link between Beijing and Shanghai, which will cover the nearly 1,400 km in less than six hours etc.
None of this would be new to anyone who has recently been to China or even reads the ever-increasing print media coverage on China. So, where is the “eureka” moment from all of these facts that are well known to many?
Perhaps the answer lies in starting with a comparison of India and China at select milestones in the last 500 years or so. Circa 16th century had both the nations governed by illustrious dynasties (Ming and Mughals). The size of the population and economy were comparable. Both suffered heavily in the 18th and the 19th centuries from colonial powers. Both got their independence around the same time, had similar scale of economies and challenges, and then both lost a few decades due to misplaced ideology. China started its reform process in 1978, while India did it in 1991. Yet, today, even the most optimistic on India would not claim that India in 2022 will be where China is in 2009.
If a single word can explain the difference between China and India (or for that matter, between the US, Germany, Japan, the UK, and even Greece and Italy and Spain and Portugal of the past), it is “audacity” in case of China, and lack of it when it comes to India. At different stages in its history, Chinese rulers have dreamt audaciously and executed their dreams resolutely and ruthlessly. At different stages in Indian history, the rulers have chosen to negotiate, compromise, take the path of least resistance, or have left things to divinity. Post-Independence, we have even misinterpreted the Gandhian notion of austerity to justify our very “small” thinking, and have taken shelter behind “democracy” for our inaction or lack of spine. While China demolishes the old to make way for the new, we regularise illegal encroachments of public land. While China built world-class manufacturing capabilities, we kept our industry reserved under small-scale for decades. While China builds world-best, pan-nation, highly-futuristic infrastructure, our visionless politicians squabble over naming of small “flyovers” in their names.
India’s challenges are humungous, and, therefore, we urgently need audacious politicians, audacious bureaucrats, audacious entrepreneurs, and audacious thinking matched with resolute, sometimes ruthless execution.