Some myths about the rise of China and India

Pranab Bardhan – Boston Review

Copyright Boston Review
After more than a century of relative stagnation, the economies of India and China have been growing at remarkably high rates over the past 25 years. In 1820 the two countries contributed nearly half of the world’s income; by 1950, with the industrialized West having pulled away, their share had fallen to less than one-tenth. Today it is just less than one-fifth, and projections suggest that by 2025 it will rise to one-third. (In 2008 the World Bank is expected to issue revised numbers about cost of living in China and India, which may somewhat reduce these estimated income shares, both current and future).
The consequences of this expansion are extraordinary. The Chinese economy in particular has made the most headway against poverty in world history, with hundreds of millions of people moved out of the most extreme poverty within just a generation. (The environmental consequences are comparably remarkable, though perhaps proportionately disastrous).
What explains this strikingly rapid growth? The answer that continues to dominate public discussion in the United States runs along the following lines: decades of socialist controls and regulations stifled enterprise in India and China and led them to a dead end. A mix of market reforms and global integration finally unleashed their entrepreneurial energies. As these giants shook off their “socialist slumber,” they entered the “flattened” playing field of global capitalism. The result has been high economic growth in both countries and correspondingly large declines in poverty.
While India’s performance has been substantial, China’s has been truly dramatic. The particularly dramatic Chinese performance (like the earlier economic “miracles” in South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) suggests, in the dominant narrative, that authoritarianism may be better than democracy for development—at least in its early stages. Regional economic decentralization provided local autonomy and incentives, and, even without democracy, led to broad-based local development. But the narrative warns that global capitalism has brought rising inequality, more in China than in India. The idea is that this may portend serious trouble for Chinese political stability, as China does not have the capability of democratic India to let off the steam of inequality-induced discontent.
This story contains a few elements of truth and provides many comforts to our preconceptions. But through sheer repetition it has acquired an authority that does not withstand scrutiny.
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Start with the claim that global integration and associated market reforms resulted in high growth, which in turn produced dramatic declines in extreme poverty. Applied to China, the timing simply does not fit. China has indeed made large strides in foreign trade and investment since the 1990s, but well before then, say between 1978 and 1993, the country had already achieved an average annual growth rate of about nine percent—even higher than the impressive seven percent growth rate in East Asia between 1960 and 1980.
China’s poverty-reduction storyline is similarly flawed. While expansion of exports of labor-intensive manufactures lifted many people out of poverty over the past decade, the principal reason for the dramatic decline over the past three decades may lie elsewhere. World Bank estimates suggest that two-thirds of the decline in extremely poor people (those living below the admittedly crude poverty line of one dollar a day per capita at 1993 international parity prices) between 1981 and 2004 had taken place by the mid-1980s. Much of the extreme poverty was concentrated in rural areas, and its large decline in the first half of the 1980s may have been principally the result of domestic factors that have little if anything to do with global integration: a spurt in agricultural growth following de-collectivization, in which output increased at 7.1% per year on average between 1979 and 1984, almost triple the 1970-78 rate; a land reform program, involving a highly egalitarian distribution of land-cultivation rights subject only to differences in regional average and family size, which provided a floor for rural income; and increased farm procurement prices.
As for India, market reforms may not be mainly responsible for its recent high growth. Reform has clearly made the Indian corporate sector more vibrant and competitive, but most of the Indian economy lies outside the corporate sector; for example, 93 percent of the labor force works outside the corporate sector, private or public.
Take the fast-growing service sector, where India’s IT-enabled services have acquired a global reputation while employing less than a quarter of one percent of the total Indian labor force. Service subsectors like finance, business services (including those IT-enabled services), and telecommunication, where reform may have made a significant difference, constitute only about a quarter of total service-sector output. Two-thirds of service output is in traditional or “unorganized” activities, in tiny enterprises often below the policy radar and unlikely to have been directly much affected by regulatory or foreign trade policy reforms. It is a matter of some dispute how much of the growth in traditional services (mostly non-traded) can be explained by a rise in service demand in the rest of the economy, and how much of it is a statistical artifact, since the way output is measured in these traditional services has been rather shaky all along.
As for poverty, the latest Indian household survey data suggest that the rate of decline, if anything, slowed somewhat in 1993-2005—the period of global integration—compared with the ’70s and ’80s. Moreover, some non-income indicators of poverty such as those relating to child health, already rather dismal, have hardly improved in recent years. (For example, the percentage of underweight children in India is much larger than in sub-Saharan Africa and has not changed much in the past decade or so). Growth in agriculture, where much of the poverty is concentrated, has declined somewhat over the past decade, largely because of the decline of public investment in rural infrastructure such as irrigation. Little of this has much to do with globalization. Indeed, some disaggregated studies across districts in India have found trade liberalization slowing down the decline in rural poverty. Such results may indicate the difficulty displaced farmers and workers have had adjusting to new activities and sectors due to various constraints such as minimal access to credit, information, or infrastructural facilities like power and roads; the high-school-dropout rate; and labor market rigidities—even as new opportunities are opened up by globalization.
The pace of poverty reduction in India has been slower than that in China not simply because Chinese growth has been faster, but also because the same one percent growth rate reduces poverty in India by much less, thanks largely to higher wealth inequalities (particularly in land and education). The Gini coefficient (a standard statistical measure of inequality, with a value of one indicating extreme inequality and zero indicating perfect equality) of land distribution in rural India was 0.74 in 2003; the corresponding figure in China was 0.49 in 2002. To a large extent this difference reflects a higher proportion of landless and near-landless people in India. In addition, educational inequality in India is among the worst in the world. According to the World Development Report 2006, the Gini coefficient of the distribution of adult schooling years in the population was 0.56 in India in 1998/2000, which is not only higher than China’s 0.37 in 2000, but even higher than almost all Latin American countries. To a large extent, this indicator reflects the high number of illiterate and near-illiterate people relative to the rest of the population in India.
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