The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A closed society with an open mind

Those, like Qin Hui, calling for political reforms sooner rather than later make one additional argument. In China, much of the push for capitalism has come from the party itself. But this is not merely an ideological push, but an institutional one as well.

Party officials are some of the greatest beneficiaries of 'privatization' of public assets. Party officials are curiously also the most westernized, with their children more likely to study abroad than those of anyone else. Indeed, amongst Chinese elites, this is quietly given as an argument for why relations between China and the United States of America will not deteriorate too much. Apart from the structural interdependence of the Chinese and US economies, China's elites, like India's, are, through family networks, more imaginatively dependent on the US than is acknowledged. Much of this contradiction has not yet registered in public consciousness, but it could gather momentum.

Hui's worry is that, if democracy came too late, after the 'privatization of the state' is complete, it would be more unstable. As he puts it, 'If China waits to practice democracy only after its public assets have mysteriously flowed out, it will face a major dilemma that neither of the two categories of countries (Eastern Europe and East Asia) have met: when the public, long referred to as the 'master of public property', gain rights of information and supervision, and even deciding the fate of government, only to discover that their property has been lost, who can guarantee that the ensuing problems will be met by a historical handshake.' China's transition, on this view, would be more like Indonesia's than South Korea's.

The regime tacitly acknowledges this, and promotes institutional reform to meet some of these concerns, without acknowledging them fully. Some of the reform instruments, like decentralization, allow some modicum of participation, but also, if need be, allow the Centre to displace responsibility. The state, by acknowledging corruption, also tries to position itself on the side of the people as an agent against pillaging of public property. The two means used are occasional bouts of severe punishment for corrupt officials, and the reintroduction of ethical teachings from time to time. In China, corruption works through the use of public assets for private asset building. In this sense, it can ironically both insulate ordinary citizens from experiencing corruption at a day-to-day level; but it also means that the private uses of state power are more structurally rooted and dissatisfaction with corruption may go to the very foundations of the state.

As is inevitable at such meetings, one could not help but think of lessons India could learn from China. Even if a democratic process is more secure, enduring and transparent, there is a thing or two it could learn from other systems. But the lesson to be learnt is not what many Indians would like to pick out: the advantages of authoritarianism. That would be a historically myopic lesson. The lesson is rather different. Good governance requires government to have a complex set of attributes. Government must be representative, participatory and transparent. But it must also be responsive, effective and accountable.

India has done relatively well on the first triad of attributes; it has arguably done less well on the second. Just on one measure of accountability, the power to sanction errant officials, China probably does much better than India, where few are ever really punished for non-performance or corruption.

The interesting conceptual question is whether India's weakness on the second triad has something to do with its success in being representative. One thought talking with the Chinese brought home was this: a regime like China's, that cannot claim legitimacy through a representative process, knows that its legitimacy and survival depend largely upon delivering outcomes. On the other hand, when you have a political system like India's, where the sources of legitimacy are through the representative process, there is less attention paid to responsive government and outcomes. Politicians in India have to master the art of knitting together social coalitions and getting the electoral arithmetic right. The connection between this representative arithmetic and effective government outcomes is perhaps more contingent than we acknowledge.

China seems more ruthlessly outcome-oriented as a government, and hence pragmatic, because it has no other source of legitimacy; Indian governance is more relaxed about outcomes because legitimacy is a function of process and representation. This contrast is overdrawn and stylized, but perhaps it can help us think about the deficits of Indian democracy. It also explains another striking paradox that China seems like a closed society that has an open mind ' looking desperately for what works; India is an open society, with a relatively closed mind ' no serious debate on what really works. Ironically, the field where this is most apparent is education. Just look at the extent to which China is experimenting in higher education: introducing all kinds of innovation, attracting private capital, foreign students and faculty, and even instituting higher fees. It is early to tell how this will all turn out, but the scale and range of experiments underway are impressive indeed.

Even those who agree on the need for political reform in China are not quite sure how to proceed, without opening the floodgates where political life acquires a momentum of its own. The one thing we know from all reform processes is that the will and orientation of state elites is as potent a cause as mass discontent. And the capacity to shepherd reform through will depend upon who the elites manage to hang together with ' elite conflicts are more likely to cause chaos than mass discontent. While it is clear that China probably has a more cohesive ruling class than any other reform country, and it is also clear that this class is thinking, it is not entirely clear quite which way it will go. Predictions on China are notoriously difficult because the principal actors themselves seem to be, to use Deng's phrase, 'feeling the stones.' And all the stones are not quite as visible as they would like them to be. But, at least, the broad-ranging discussions China seems to be having about different parts of the world suggests that it is trying to grope its way forward.

But just as I was wondering what India could learn from China, I came across this striking sentence from Qin Hui, 'What is excessive now is not liberalism or social democracy but oligarchy and populism. It is essential, therefore, to critique both oligarchy from a liberal standpoint and populism from a social democratic standpoint.' I wondered if there could be a better formulation of the challenges for Indian democracy.

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