Yesterday, Thomas Friedman compared India and China.
If India and China were both highways, the Chinese highway would be a six-lane, perfectly paved road, but with a huge speed bump off in the distance labeled "Political reform: how in the world do we get from Communism to a more open society?" […] India, by contrast, is like a highway full of potholes, with no sidewalks and half the streetlamps broken. But off in the distance, the road seems to smooth out, and if it does, this country will be a dynamo.
There is a better way to make the comparison:
China is to India as Wal-Mart is to Target
I apologize to 2.4 billion people so characterized and to TBSA readers for this violent insult to their intelligence. But as long as the NYT is trading in dubious metaphor, surely bloggers have license equally rash and quite as ludicrous.
Here’s what I mean by the analogy. In the international economy, China is a commodity player. India’s promise lies in its control of cultural particulars. And by this I mean, India understands and participates in the culture of the First World West in ways China does not.
As long as the world wants its merchants to "pile em high and sell em cheap," China will flourish as Wal-Mart does. But as Virginia Postrel’s vision of the marketplace comes to pass, and all consumer goods begin to add value and win share by embracing design intelligence, India will flourish as Target has.
India has a large intellectual and creative class. Many of these people are worldly in ways the chattering classes of the West are not. More than that, India is its own intellectual challenge, a culture that knows a thing or two about diversity and discontinuity. Moreover, India has been drawing on the intellectual and educational resources of the West for several hundred years. (What’s theirs is theirs, what’s ours is theirs.)
There are lots of smaller questions: 1) Has India borrowed from the English that disdain for the marketplace that keeps some smart people out of the game? 2) Clearly, India has its own traditions of world refusal. Are these active? 3) Do the educational institutions of India encourage creativity and in what domains do they encourage it? I have a feeling that there is a bias for hard science over interpretive approaches every bit as ferocious as the Western one once was. Indias "cultural creatives," to use Richard Florida’s term, are being shaped by many factors.
Mao’s cultural revolution was vastly destructive of intellectual talent, ideas, and worldliness. Clearly, these stocks of knowledge and personnel are coming back. (Sometimes, literally in the person of fully Westernized members of the "overseas" community.) And some part of the contest between China and India will turn on whether the former can recover cultural sophistication faster than the latter can create the infrastructure that Friedman finds so lacking.
I am not a student of India or China. I have been to China five times over the last 15 years, traveling widely, doing commercial research and detailed interviews in home, talking to people of modest means, and generally speaking, not much education. I have been to India twice over the last 8 years, to Mumbai and New Delhi only. Again, I was doing commercial research and interviewing people of modest means and limited education. While I know lots of South Asians who are intellectuals and cultural creatives, all of them have been resident in Canada or the US for many years. In sum, the argument above is pretty much pure surmise.
Friedman, Thomas L. 2005. Bangalore: Hot and Hotter. New York Times. June 8, 2005.
Florida, Richard. 2002. The rise of the creative class. Washington Monthly. May.
Postrel, Virginia. 2003. The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value Is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness. New York: HarperCollins.