As a Chinese working on public sector governance and living in India, I'm often asked to compare the two governing systems, the largest democracy in the world and the largest non-democracy in the world. The gap in political and civil participation between the two countries is well known.
India's civil society and media are much more dynamic and vocal. I particularly admire the impact of the Center for Science and Environment on environmental policy, Pratham on education, the Naz Foundation on gay and lesbian rights, and MKSS on Rights to Information. I’m not aware of equally impactful counterparts in China but would be happy to hear about those you have come across. Certainly China can benefit from moving towards a more open society, where minority voices are heard and rights protected, and where abuse of official power and natural resource is restrained.
But when it comes to building infrastructure and reducing poverty, China is doing much better. Why? We often hear "Yes, but China is an authoritarian regime." -- as if authoritarian regimes automatically are more capable of development. Yes an authoritarian regime can be more efficient in making policies -- good or bad -- because the process of consultation and public deliberation can be truncated. But which theory predicts that democracies are less capable of building good infrastructure quickly or taking care of the poor?
"India has voice and China has accountability," director John Roome quoted a colleague during a Governance Partnership Facility workshop in Cape Town a few weeks back. That's an interesting observation.
People who know the inside of the Chinese Communist Party and the bureaucracy know that things get done because internal accountability within the system is strong. Performance evaluation and promotion supports the policy direction of the party. For example, to achieve population control, public servants lose jobs if they violate the single-child policy and their managers will suffer for their employees' violations. If infrastructure development and economic growth are high priorities, those mayors and governors who perform well have a better chance for career advancement.
When environmental concerns became more prominent, environmental indicators started featuring in local officials' score card. My friend Somnath told me that a high-ranking official in Guangxi province once said to him, "China may have bad policies but we can always implement them." The same officials said to Somnath, "India may have good policies but cannot implement them."
I hope you'll join me in debating these observations and exploring ways each system can extend its shorter leg.