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India's Rising Tide

John Lee

China and India will likely defy the economic malaise in Western economies and grow at more than 7% this year. But that is where the comparison should end. Contrary to popular hype, India is actually outpacing China where it counts most — the economic growth of the rural poor.

Half of China’s population and two-thirds of India’s still live in rural areas — roughly 700 million people in each country, most of whom remain poor. In China, the urban-rural income ratio has become increasingly disparate; it was 1.8 times more in the mid-1980s, 2.4 in the mid-1990s, 2.9 in 2001 and now around 3.5.

This trend starkly contrasts with the early years of Chinese economic reform. Over 80% of the poverty reduction in China occurred during Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, between 1978 and 1988. Although per-capita incomes have risen since then, the net incomes of about 400 million people have declined over the past decade.

India started from a lower economic base but has made greater gains: Its urban-rural income gap has slowly but steadily declined since the early 1990s. Over the past decade, economic growth in rural India has outpaced growth in urban areas by almost 40%. Rural India now accounts for half of the country’s GDP, up from 46% in 1993. Unlike the Chinese, rural Indians do not have to migrate to already crowded urban areas to earn a better living.

These trends mirror the path of economic reform in both nations. China had a huge head start in alleviating poverty. It began free-market reforms in 1978, while India only started on its current journey away from socialism toward a market-based system in the early 1990s. Since the turn of the century, India has been rapidly improving, but China has been getting worse. And since 2000, poverty and illiteracy in India have halved, while the same figures doubled in China.

The role of domestic consumption in the economy also demonstrates the divergent paths of these two developing giants. In China, domestic consumption as a proportion of GDP has fallen to 35% from around 60% in the 1980s. The Chinese “economic miracle” depends mostly on exports and state-led fixed investment. Even Beijing consistently admits this is an unbalanced, unsustainable strategy. Moreover, depressed consumption levels and correspondingly high levels of savings by the citizens of a still-poor country mean growth is uneven and benefits relatively few. In contrast, domestic consumption composes more than two-thirds of the Indian economy. India has a lot of catching up to do, but its poor are rising with the tide, unlike in China.

China’s emphasis on state-led fixed-investment growth in urban areas may have fostered this trend, exacerbating inequality and heavily favoring a relatively small number of well-placed insiders. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Beijing decided the state should reassert its control of economic growth, which had rested on private-sector entrepreneurship. Before Tiananmen, private-sector investment growth in rural China was growing at 20% annually. After Tiananmen, it dropped to 7%. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have since missed out on the fruits of the country’s spectacular growth.

The Chinese and Indian development models are not actually in competition, despite what newspaper headlines and books may suggest. But as magnificent as Shanghai now is, its shiny buildings have been built on the backs of peasants forced to deposit their savings into state-owned banks and receiving little in return. In contrast, India started its reforms 15 years later than China but is quietly and gradually building its base. Now that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is starting his second term, he will do well to reject the dangerous appeal of the Chinese approach.

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