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India Measures Itself Against a China That Doesnt Notice

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MUMBAI, India It seems to be a national obsession in India: measuring the countrys economic development against Chinas yardstick. At a recent panel discussion to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Multimedia Indias dismantling parts of its socialist economy, a government minister told business leaders to keep their eye on the big prize: growing faster than China.

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Thats not impossible, said the minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, who oversees national security and previously was finance minister. People are beginning to talk about outpacing China. Indians, in fact, seem to talk endlessly about all things China, a neighbor with whom they have long had a prickly relationship, but which is also one of the few other economies that has had 8 percent or more annual growth in recent years. Indian newspapers are filled with articles comparing the two countries. Indian executives refer to China as a template for development. Government officials cite Beijing, variously as a threat, partner or role model.

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But if keeping up with the Wangs is Indias economic motive force, the rivalry seems to be largely one-sided. Indians are obsessed with China, but the Chinese are paying too little attention to India, said Minxin Pei, an economist who was born in China and who writes a monthly column for The Indian Express, a national daily newspaper. (No Indian economists are known to have a regular column in mainland Chinese publications.)

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Most Chinese are unconcerned with how India is growing and changing, because they prefer to compare their country with the United States and Europe, said Mr. Pei, a professor at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles. He says he has tried to organize conferences about India in China but has struggled to find enough Chinese India experts. Liu Yi, a clothing store owner in Beijing, echoed the sentiments of a dozen Chinese people interviewed in Beijing and Shanghai, in dismissing the idea that the two countries could be compared. Yes, he said India was a world leader in information technology but it also had many backward, undeveloped places. Chinas economy is special, Mr. Liu said. If Chinas development has a model, you could say its the U.S. or England. It might be only natural that the Chinese would look up the development ladder to the United States, now that it is the only nation in the world with a larger economy, rather than over their shoulders at India, which ranks ninth. And while China is Indias largest trading partner, the greatest portion of Chinas exports go to the United States. So for India, China represents the higher rung to strive for. Like India, China traces its civilization back thousands of years and has a population of more than 1 billion people. And China has lessons to offer because, under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and early 80s, it started the transition to a more open and competitive economy more than a decade before India. Before Deng took power, Indias economy was bigger on a per-capita basis than Chinas. Whatever the reasons, Indians compare virtually every aspect of their nation with China. Infrastructure (China is acknowledged as being many kilometers ahead). The armed forces (China is more powerful). Universities (China has invested more in its institutions). The software industry (India is far ahead). Proficiency in the English language (India has the historical advantage, but China is catching up). Evidence of the Indo-Sino interest disparity can be seen in the two countries leading newspapers. The Peoples Daily, the Chinese Communist Partys house organ, had only 24 articles mentioning India on its English-language Web site in the first seven months of this year, according to the Factiva database. By contrast, The Times of India, the countrys largest circulation English-language newspaper, had 57 articles mentioning China in July alone. There are other big gaps. Indian cities, large and small, are filled with Chinese restaurants that serve a distinctly ultraspicy, Indian version of that cuisine. But there are few Indian restaurants in Beijing or Shanghai, let alone in smaller Chinese cities. In 2009, more than 160,000 Indian tourists visited mainland China, according to the Chinese government. Barely 100,000 Chinese tourists made the reverse trek, according to Indias government. Prakash Jagtap, who owns a small engineering firm in the western Indian city of Pune, has been to China five times. Like many Indians, he loves Chinese food (of the Indian variant) and he sings the praises of Chinese diligence and persistence. They have more discipline, he said. Here in our country, people dont look for the long term. Instead, they look for short term, both the management and labor. We have to change our work culture.

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Mr. Jagtaps statement reflects a widely held view among Indians that China has outperformed their country in large part because the Chinese one-party system is more disciplined than Indias vibrant, but messy, democracy. In early July, The Economic Times, Indias leading financial newspaper, ran a photo slide show on its Web site titled How China builds these, and why India never does. The slide show is a series of photographs of large infrastructure projects in China, including the a new 26-mile-long bridge linking Qingdao and the Huangdao district across the Jiaozhou Bay on the northeastern coast. Indias views have also been shaped by a 1962 war that ended with China seizing a chunk of the northern India state of Kashmir. The countries still have an unsettled border, and China claims a large piece of territory controlled by India. Raghav Bahl, an Indian media executive who has written a book about the economic rise of both countries, said Indians nursed a severe feeling of humiliation from the 1962 war that was compounded by Chinas economic rise. There is a sense that this is one race that we could have done much better in, said Mr. Bahl, author of Superpower? The Amazing Race Between Chinas Hare and Indias Tortoise. But he added that Indians had regained confidence recently as a result of their countrys strong economy. Many, like Mr. Chidambaram and The Economist magazine, have suggested that India could soon grow at a faster pace than China. Its economy, at $5.9 trillion, is about three and a half times as big as the Indian economy, but Chinas population is much older than Indias. In China, however, India does not register as a threat, economically or otherwise. Mr. Pei, the economist, said Chinese officials, executives and even many intellectuals did not have a nuanced understanding of India. Communist conservatives maintain that democracy is hindering Indias development, he said. Meanwhile, Chinese liberals argue that democracy makes India more stable and its government more accountable an impression that appears to ignore Indias frequent electoral turmoil and deep-rooted corruption. But Indian fascination with Chinas economic success is also simplistic, Mr. Pei said. While one-party rule may have helped the country build infrastructure and factories in recent decades, it was also responsible for big failures under Mao Zedong. They include the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, when millions of people starved or were killed or persecuted. Even now, Chinas leaders are struggling to quell public outrage over a recent high-speed train disaster, for which many Chinese blame corruption and cronyism in the railways ministry. In both countries, the level of knowledge about the other is relatively low, Mr. Pei said. But at least several people interviewed in China acknowledged an inherent competition between the countries, given their size and fast growth. Ideally, they said, it will be a healthy rivalry. Competition exists between any two nations, said Hu Jun, a 40-year-old teacher in Shanghai. Thats a good thing. If we compete in the areas of high-tech and energy saving, I think that will benefit everyone. In India, Shrayank Gupta, a 21-year-old student at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, echoed those sentiments: There will definitely be a race, because we are both naturally competitive, and the world will depend on both of us. Xu Yan contributed reporting from Shanghai and Joshua Frank from Beijing.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 1, 2011, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: A One-Sided Rivalry.

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