Walk into any Wal-Mart and you won't be surprised to see the shelves sagging with Chinese-made goods -- everything from shoes and garments to toys and electronics. But the ubiquitous "Made in China" label obscures an important point: Few of these products are made by indigenous Chinese companies. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a single homegrown Chinese firm that operates on a global scale and markets its own products abroad.
That is because China's export-led manufacturing boom is largely a creation of foreign direct investment (FDI), which effectively serves as a substitute for domestic entrepreneurship. During the last 20 years, the Chinese economy has taken off, but few local firms have followed, leaving the country's private sector with no world-class companies to rival the big multinationals.
India has not attracted anywhere near the amount of FDI that China has. In part, this disparity reflects the confidence international investors have in China's prospects and their skepticism about India's commitment to free-market reforms. But the FDI gap is also a tale of two diasporas. China has a large and wealthy diaspora that has long been eager to help the motherland, and its money has been warmly received. By contrast, the Indian diaspora was, at least until recently, resented for its success and much less willing to invest back home. New Delhi took a dim view of Indians who had gone abroad, and of foreign investment generally, and instead provided a more nurturing environment for domestic entrepreneurs.
In the process, India has managed to spawn a number of companies that now compete internationally with the best that Europe and the United States have to offer. Moreover, many of these firms are in the most cutting-edge, knowledge-based industries -- software giants Infosys and Wipro and pharmaceutical and biotechnology powerhouses Ranbaxy and Dr. Reddy's Labs, to name just a few. Last year, the Forbes 200, an annual ranking of the world's best small companies, included 13 Indian firms but just four from mainland China.
India has also developed much stronger infrastructure to support private enterprise. Its capital markets operate with greater efficiency and transparency than do China's. Its legal system, while not without substantial flaws, is considerably more advanced.
China and India are the world's next major powers. They also offer competing models of development. It has long been an article of faith that China is on the faster track, and the economic data bear this out. The "Hindu rate of growth" -- a pejorative phrase referring to India's inability to match its economic growth with its population growth -- may be a thing of the past, but when it comes to gross domestic product (GDP) figures and other headline numbers, India is still no match for China.
However, the statistics tell only part of the story -- the macroeconomic story. At the micro level, things look quite different. There, India displays every bit as much dynamism as China. Indeed, by relying primarily on organic growth, India is making fuller use of its resources and has chosen a path that may well deliver more sustainable progress than China's FDI-driven approach. "Can India surpass China?" is no longer a silly question, and, if it turns out that India has indeed made the wiser bet, the implications -- for China's future growth and for how policy experts think about economic development generally -- could be enormous.
The Stifling State
The fact that India is increasingly building from the ground up while China is still pursuing a top-down approach reflects their contrasting political systems: India is a democracy, and China is not. But the different strategies are also a function of history. China's Communist Party came to power in 1949 intent on eradicating private ownership, which it quickly did. Although the country is now in its third decade of free-market reforms, it continues to struggle with the legacy of that period -- witness the controversy surrounding the recent decision to officially allow capitalists to join the Communist Party.
India, on the other hand, developed a softer brand of socialism, Fabian socialism, which aimed not to destroy capitalism but merely to mitigate the social ills it caused. It was considered essential that the public sector occupy the economy's "commanding heights," to use a phrase coined by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin but popularized by India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. However, that did not prevent entrepreneurship from flourishing where the long arm of the state could not reach.
Developments at the microeconomic level in China reflect these historical and ideological differences. China has been far bolder with external reforms but has imposed substantial legal and regulatory constraints on indigenous, private firms. In fact, only four years ago, domestic companies were finally granted the same constitutional protections that foreign businesses have enjoyed since the early 1980s. As of the late 1990s, according to the International Finance Corporation, more than two dozen industries, including some of the most important and lucrative sectors of the economy -- banking, telecommunications, highways, and railroads -- were still off-limits to private local companies.
These restrictions were designed not to keep Chinese entrepreneurs from competing with foreigners but to prevent private domestic businesses from challenging China's state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Some progress has been made in reforming the bloated, inefficient SOEs during the last 20 years, but Beijing is still not willing to relinquish its control over the largest ones, such as China Telecom.
Instead, the government has ferociously protected them from competition. In the 1990s, numerous Chinese entrepreneurs tried, and failed, to circumvent the restrictions placed on their activities. Some registered their firms as nominal SOEs (all the capital came from private sources, and the companies were privately managed), only to find themselves ensnared in title disputes when financially strapped government agencies sought to seize their assets. More than a few promising businesses have been destroyed this way.
This bias against homegrown firms is widely acknowledged. A report issued in 2000 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences concluded that, "Because of long-standing prejudices and mistaken beliefs, private and individual enterprises have a lower political status and are discriminated against in numerous policies and regulations. The legal, policy, and market environment is unfair and inconsistent."
Foreign investors have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the constraints placed on local private businesses. One indication of the large payoff they have reaped on the back of China's phenomenal growth: In 1992, the income accruing to foreign investors with equity stakes in Chinese firms was only $5.3 billion; today it totals more than $22 billion. (This money does not necessarily leave the country; it is often reinvested in China.)