China's Accountability and India's Voice


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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.


Yongmei Zhou

Co-Director, World Development Report 2017, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Vikas Kumar
December 14, 2010

Indians have so far given preference to authentic leaders, i.e., those who ascriptively represent them. However, it seems people are realizing that they need efficient leaders for development and also that the judicial and other accountability measures can protect people from ethnic discrimination, if any, under efficient leaders belonging to other communities. A case in point in Bihar. See Rajiv Kumar's recent opinion piece…

Arvind Gupta
October 05, 2010

I think you are too emphatic and black and white, to a point that the analysis is a caricature and not reality.

Both countries have a mixed record --- at times failing or succeeding in implementing good policies or bad policies. Till the late 60s China was implementing poor policies well with poor results. Till the early 80s, India was administering poor policies poorly with poor results.

China started the reform process twenty years earlier than India. India started later but the coutcomes have been pretty good and continue to improve; making your assertion of poor policy implementation rather dubious.

Growth rates would not have increased, Indian product and services markets would not have become competitive, savings and investments in India would not have gone up, infrastructure investments would not have gone up signifcantly, outward orientation would not have increased, income equality would have worsened if the inability to implement policies was as poor as caricatured by you.

Perhaps a more nunance understanding and analysis is required.

October 05, 2010

On the infrastructure issue, one reads in the media about the relatively more straightforward process of acquiring land for projects in China, as compared to India.

FYI - you may find this blog post interesting -…

Sanjay Vani
October 05, 2010

The big difference between India and China, I think, is the vibrant private sector in India while the enterprise sector is dominated by SOEs in China. Despite the stifling bureaucracy and wide spread corruption, the private sector in India is innovating, growing, and competing in markets which were off limit just a few years ago. The danger, however, is that such private sector led growth has limitations and sooner than later the growth curve will taper off unless there is marked improvement in governance and drastic reduction in corruption. Similarly, the growth curve in China will also reach a plateau without innovative private sector.

Sinchan Mitra
October 09, 2010

I liked your observation about India having voice and China having accountability. In India, the accountability mechanisms that would ensure that the government remains accountable to its citizens are weak. There is very little effective monitoring of public spending and millions of rupees spent on infrastructure/social programs are siphoned of by corrupt/inefficient officials who have little fear of consequences. Whereas, paradoxically in China, the Communist Party has succeeded in creating an incentive structure that rewards/penalizes Party officials for succeeding/failing to achieve development targets set by the Party. This shows that we cannot think about the impact of Indian style democracy and Chinese style authoritarianism on development outcomes in terms of broad generalizations that we often see in the media on this issue.

December 15, 2010

The observation set forward by YONGMEI ZHOU is truly correct but one should not forget that India is a country which still lacks in strong regime of government policies, as one already knows that India is among one of the largest Democratic countries, where every individual has right to speak under Part III - Fundamental Rights of Indian Constitution, which leads to numerous activities for the stoppage in most of the applying laws. So far demanding accountability in comparison to China with progressing development, India lacks behind China due to its slow procedure of ratifications, as India goes through several mandatory stages of procedures before ratifying the amendments or the new laws. Whereas, China has an authoritative Government where the Individuals are bound to follow it. In Indian policy the Sovereignty first comes from welfare of its people, to the State, having their representatives to respond for their benefit. So, the procedures for setting up better infrastructure in India, may be coming up in slow phase, as there are still some reviews pending for the delay procedures and the welfare purposes which have to be satisfied by all groups, classes and societies of its people and Government which needs to be identified before proceeding. So we can rightly say, "India has a voice, which is for the benefit of its people and its own countries development". So one can end a note by reminding all, "India is a country, where unity in diversity still prevails".