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Nigel Harris

India and China

(June 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 59, June 1973, pp. 23–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

India and China, Studies in Comparative Development
Kuan-I Chen and Joginder S. Uppal
Free Press – Collier-Macmillan, £5.95

Hundred Day War: The Cultural Revolution at Tsinghua University
William Hinton
Monthly Review Press, £3.15

The Long Revolution
Edgar Snow
Hutchinson, 1973

The Chinese Cultural Revolution
Adrian Hsia
Orbach and Chambers, £1.45 paperback

To most people, even asking the question: ‘Has Chinese economic growth been faster than Indian?’ is absurd. Everyone knows that China’s record is one of glorious and ever advancing success, India’s of periodic famine, gloom and failure.

Such is the power of propaganda. For India, the facts and figures are abundant. For China, they are very scarce indeed (there has been no published census of the population since 1953, for example), and that scarcity is not because China’s economic success is so remarkable.

Chen and Uppal have put together some of the main authoritative accounts of both economies (virtually all the pieces are fairly easily available elsewhere). They give some very rough and ready idea of the relative performance of each. For example, we can see – on one set of estimates – that between 1952 and 1967, Chinese production of foodgrains (the overwhelmingly largest single output of both economies) increased by 1.9 per cent per year, and Indian by 1.7. If we exclude the two worst years in each country’s case, the growth rates are the same: 2.5 per cent (barely a hairsbreadth in front of the probable increase in population).

In industrial production, China’s overall record is better than India’s, although with some qualifications. China started with much more unused capacity, and – apparently – a significantly richer economy. Unlike grain output, industrial production is not easily compared – we need to compare not just, for example, gross steel output, but also the variety of steels produced. Technically, the modern Indian economy is much more sophisticated than the Chinese (a wider range of special steels, but poorer gross steel output).

When we add up all the different items and make allowance for all the peculiarities, while social conditions seem very different in the two countries, the long-term economic performance is not that different. The Chinese economy expands much faster than the Indian when it expands, but its contractions have been much more violent as well (the opposite of what is normally supposed as a crucial difference between ‘socialism’ and capitalism). This impression may now be changing since much of the book was written well before the onset of the stubborn stagnation now gripping India’s economy.

This book sheds some light on these questions. But it has no unified view (the editors’ introductions and notes do not pull it together). Much of the material is monstrously out-of-date. For example, the item on India’s future economic prospects was originally published in 1962, nine years before this book appeared. As a result, the blandest irrelevance is substituted for the catastrophes that afflicted the Indian economy in the second half of the sixties.

But this factor is only part of a general irrelevance in the volume. Neither author wants to face the question whether India or China have any serious prospect of developing at all. Neither has anything useful to say about a whole range of vital economic determinants – the balance of political power, the class struggle, the effectiveness of the administration, defence expenditure, and so on. The real comparative work has still to be done.

The three other volumes are rather dreadful. The authors come to praise, not to analyse. Two of the books are products of that influential school of thought, the Maoist Liberals (Roosevelt’s New Deal, Keynes, Scandinavian Social Democracy, Mao and Stalin are or were all ‘progressive’ forces). Hsia has higher aspirations and tries to clothe his account in Marxist jargon. But all three evade or miss all the serious political questions in recent events in China.

Hinton’s tale, of the Cultural Revolution in Tsinghua University, has all the heavy moral – and boring – coloration of a nineteenth century fable for the young. There is never any doubt that Good and Virtue will triumph in the end. Fortunately, the book was written after the fall of Lin Piao, so the author was not caught looking silly on the wrong swing of the roundabout.

Edgar Snow, the sort of journalist described by the newspapers as ‘doyen of the old China hands’, momentarily became much more significant than the quality of this book might suggest. He found himself the swallow for Nixon’s Peking spring. His account of his last trip to China – just before he died – is strictly for Sinophiles and those who enjoy sycophantic but respectful anecdotes about the great of history. There are no surprises.

Adrian Hsia has higher pretensions. But his political insensitivity makes it impossible for him to do much better. For him, the Cultural Revolution was an exercise in something he calls ideology (i.e. the rhetoric of propaganda statements), and he approaches his subject with a breathtaking innocence (‘by the end of this two year period (1955-6) ... China had become a socialist state in all essential respects’; ‘In theory ... the workers are the true leaders of the Chinese people’s dictatorship. In practice, they take their lead from the party, which represents their interests and acts on their behalf’).

Unlike Hinton, he gets caught praising Lin Piao fulsomely. Nor does he even get his facts right. At one stage he argues that Mao’s notion of permanent revolution is almost identical to Trotsky’s, and quotes in support a passage he says is from Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution. It is not, and in style and content appears not to be by Trotsky at all.

Such tiresome trivialities should not deflect those in search of heroic romance or academic advancement. The real China is another matter.

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