Behold the August 21-27 cover of the Economist: The illustration is of two bodybuilder torsos, elbows planted firmly on the globe, arm wrestling. One bicep sports a dragon tattoo; the other a tiger. The headline reads: "Contest of the Century: China v India." But the overall effect conjures not so much civilizational struggle as Arm & Hammer Baking Soda. More precisely, the cover art implies a zero sum game -- one winner, one loser -- which is hardly how anyone in China or India, busy as they are trying to assemble deals and profit from each others' growing economies, sees the future.
To be fair, it's hard to capture the enormously complicated and consequential story of the simultaneous rise of China and India in an icon. Visual clichés and journalistic shorthand exist for a reason, and Foreign Policy has admittedly relied on its fair share of stereotypes, from China's Yao Ming to turbaned Indians bathing in the Ganges. Yet Western headline writers and art directors really should try to do better -- it's getting pretty tiresome out there.
Let's start with zoology. America is the eagle, and Russia the bear, but China and India each have not one, but two emblematic animal icons that have nearly opposite connotations. China is alternately a cuddly panda or a threatening dragon, depending on the author's message. (Interestingly, in Chinese folklore a dragon is a wise and positive force, not a menace to be slain by St. George.) India is either an elephant or a tiger -- a wise, slow-moving giant or a surging predator. A March 19, 2007 Businessweek cover story, headlined "The Trouble with India: Crumbling roads, jammed airports, and power blackouts could hobble growth," showed an elephant shattering like a clay doll. A Feb. 3, 2007 Economist cover, "India Overheats," depicted a tiger with its tail on fire.
If the dragon and the tiger fight, the
panda and the elephant seek refuge from the world -- as in yet another Economist cover, which shows those two animals
taking shelter from a storm beside a limp little tree and beneath the
headline, "China and India: A Tale of Two Vulnerable Economies." (Occasionally
the panda does get mean, as when the Economist
depicted one ascending the Empire State building, a la King Kong, on a cover
captioned: "America's fear of China.") If there's any larger meaning to be
gleaned from this set of magazine covers, the West, it seems, is worried
that India might fall apart -- and that China might get its act together.