In his 2005 book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell argued that your first impression of something or someone is often the right one. It's a maddening concept: people spend (take your pick) hours/months/years trying to figure things out, trying to arrive at the right conclusion, when, Gladwell asserts, first is best.
So here's a Blink test. How many times have you heard a CEO or business leader from a third country say the U.S., Japan or South Korea who, after finishing an Asia run, collapses into a chair and says: "Oh man, that China, what a mess. But I'll tell you what, I love India"? I have lived and worked in China eight of the past 10 years and met a fair number of executives under those circumstances. And the answer to the question is: not once.
That blink! is for very good reason. China's extraordinary economic momentum is not only real, it's not going away. Indeed, the economy is moving to a new phase: one driven, at the micro level, by an unrelenting shift up the technology curve, and at the macro level by the explosion of domestic demand. China is now the world's second largest economy after the U.S., having grown nearly 10% per year through the first decade of this century. Income growth per capita in 2010 rose 9%. Manufacturing productivity is expanding 10% a year. The country unlike India continues to run a huge current account surplus and will be posting only a slight budget deficit this year. It also has over $3 trillion (and counting) worth of foreign-exchange reserves and, in a world in which the developed nations are engaged in beggar-thy-neighbor currency devaluations, a steadily strengthening renminbi.
China's skeptics in particular those who believe the India "model" will eventually win out always make the same argument: the only reason China has grown faster than India is because it has a strong state that has force-fed growth (just as, some argue, the Soviet Union did in the 1950s). The government simply snaps its fingers and orders its state-owned banks to finance the construction of high-speed railways, digital networks, airports, bridges, subway systems and sports stadiums. To which the Chinese would plead: guilty as charged. Those who are fixated on the narrowness of fixed-capital investment ignore the fact that global manufacturers would not have come had the country's infrastructure been as poor as well, let's face it India's.
The issue of the Chinese government's significant role in the country's growth invariably gets wrapped into politics. People who make the case that China is better governed than India often get labeled as commie lovers or apologists for an admittedly authoritarian state that routinely throws annoying dissidents, artists and journalists in jail. Don't confuse the issue. Governance, in the China-vs.-India context, should be defined as Arvind Subramanian writes in Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China's Economic Dominance not as some bureaucrat ordering up a new bridge to be built and raking off a nice little cut for himself. What it means, says Subramanian, is "creating the conditions so that the private sector can flourish."
This is precisely what one-party governments once did in East Asia: think Taiwan, South Korea and even Japan in its miracle years. Take one of China's examples. Several years ago, the authorities decided that the industrial base of Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan province, needed to be massively upgraded. Critically, the upgrade included both physical and human capital. The government built roads and rail lines. It set up an enormous industrial park outside the city, replete with state-of-the-art telecommunications networks. More important, its local universities, technical institutes and vocational schools beefed up courses in electronics and engineering.
This was of a piece with what has been happening nationwide. China is churning out competent, skilled workers at an extraordinary pace. In their book Run of the Red Queen, U.S. academics Dan Breznitz and Michael Murphree argue that "the Chinese education system is producing ever larger numbers of graduates who, while limited in skills to conduct advanced original research, are perfectly suited and probably better suited than their foreign counterparts to excel in other stages of innovation." Intel was one company that transferred much of its manufacturing base from Shanghai to the Chengdu park. "Nobody put a gun to our head and said move here," says Bruce Aitken, Intel's financial controller for the Chengdu site. "We're here because we wanted to be here once we saw what was taking shape."