What the modi-xi meeting tells us about china and india time

For years, the consensus was that a rising middle-class would force Chinese leadership to reform its political system to accommodate an empowered citizenry that would demand more freedoms. That didn’t happen, although to Beijing’s credit, Chinese leadership proactively began addressing concerns like corruption and air pollution before they reached crisis levels. The recent (and continuing) political turbulence in the West has also dulled the appeal of free-market democracy in the eyes of many.

India is another story. Modi has failed to live up to his campaign promise to create 10 million new jobs a year; by some estimates, he hasn’t even been able to hit 10 percent of that mark.


India’s healthcare system also remains underwhelming, and its issues will become more pronounced as the economic fortunes of average citizens continue to rise. (The government has announced plans to dramatically expand basic health coverage, but doesn’t have the resources to come close to fully delivering on those lofty promises.) Both these oversights have given Modi’s political opposition an opening ahead of Indian elections slated for spring 2019.

Yet Indians are still bullish on the future— 70 percent of Indians today are “satisfied” with the way things are going in the country, up from 29 percent in 2013. Given the immense strides India has made in the last two decades, that optimism is understandable. However, while globalization has already begun roiling politics in the West, it has yet to do so in emerging markets.

That moment of reckoning is coming. According to the World Bank, 69 percent of jobs in India today are at risk of automation in the dawning era of AI. And automation isn’t just coming for India: 77 percent of jobs in China are also susceptible to the coming tech revolution. But China, maybe more than any other country in the world, is equipped to handle it. Beijing has shown time and again that it prizes social stability over economic gain, and given its unusual control over the entire Chinese economy, the country is positioned to ensure that mass-scale economic displacement remains carefully managed and in check. Free-market democracies, not so much.

Given today’s chaotic politics and the disruptive tech headwinds looming, the Chinese political model has never been more appealing. But that system comes at a cost—namely a growing surveillance state, spanning from a national video network of 176 million cameras nationwide (with a plan to install 250+ million more by 2020) to a “social credit system” that aggregates aspects of person’s history—from cheating on school exams to missing alimony payments to visiting “problematic” websites—into a composite score to assess a person’s trustworthiness. That in turn could determine what kind of doctors you can see, what dating websites you can join, or where you’re allowed to travel.

Such measures are fundamentally incompatible with liberal democracy, especially one like India where elections are regular and fiercely contested, speech is (mostly) free, and the courts are independent. That hasn’t stopped Modi from trying to assert more control, proposing a law earlier this month to strip any journalist that disseminated “fake news” (as deemed by the government) of their credentials. (That law was pulled following publicly outcry.) India’s much-vaunted Aadhar biometric identification system—intended to help authorities cut down on benefits fraud—was voluntary when first rolled out but is now effectively mandatory to receive essential government services. It is now being challenged in courts, but there is also a growing sense among some in India that democracy doesn’t bring the advantages it once did—a sentiment largely fueled by China’s meteoric rise. But while Modi may be willing to trade some of his citizens’ privacy for a more efficient government, it’s not clear that the Indian public agrees with him.