The Phoenix And The Dragon

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I’m in India. It’s a glorious mess. The streets of Delhi remain a seething, endless vortex of chaos, as they were when I last visited eleven years ago, but nowadays, gleaming new highways, shopping malls, and five-star hotels rise above them. The sleek and efficient new metro system carries millions of people a day, but leaks in the monsoon rains. The suburb of Gurgaon looks completely First World, equal parts office towers, shopping centres, luxury gated residental enclaves, and golf courses, but as the New York Times recently reported, it does not have “a functioning citywide sewer or drainage system; reliable electricity or water; and public sidewalks, adequate parking, decent roads or any citywide system of public transportation.” Meanwhile, the government is reeling with corruption scandals, including last year’s Commonwealth Games debacle and a whopping $40 billion worth of mis-auctioned 2G spectrum.

The central question of our time is whether this will be China’s century or India’s. (Assuming that the notion of nation-states survives, which seems likely, there aren’t really any other contenders; China and India contain nearly half of humanity, and both are well on their way to economic superpower.) I admit that right now it might not seem much of a contest. China is more populous, already a decade ahead of India in terms of economic development, growing faster, and—measured by patents—far more innovative. In China, achievements are accomplished at the behest of the government; in India, things somehow manage to get done despite the government.

But I think that’s an advantage. I don’t believe patent applications measure real innovation. I think India is more innovative, and that it will ultimately win the economic race, not just despite the Indian authorities’ habit of incompetent self-destruction, but because of it. There’s an essay by Eric Raymond, called The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which is famous in the software world. It compares and contrasts two models of software development; the top-down “cathedral” model of eg GCC, and the chaotic—sometimes verging on anarchic—bottom-down “bazaar” model of eg Linux. I think there are parallels between software development and economic development, and that China is a cathedral (or maybe even a closed-source Microsoft) whereas India is a bazaar. And in the software world, eventually, the bazaar won.

Consider corruption. It’s the scourge of both nations. I’ve already cited a few of India’s greatest hits. China too is plagued by almost weekly corruption scandals; recently, after it emerged that its railway minister was on the take, it slowed its brand-new high-speed train network in the name of safety; and the accounting of internationally listed Chinese firms has recently been seriously questioned. The response in both nations has been a variation of “yes, government corruption is a real problem, but don’t worry, we in the government are going to root it out!” Unsurprisingly many are less than convinced.

But India has an anti-corruption weapon that China doesn’t—indeed, one that would probably be banned if it were to gain traction in China. I give you, an open, crowdsourced corruption-reporting service. I’ve been calling for just such a thing for some years now. Corruption is the enemy of development; transparency is the enemy of corruption; and China isn’t just opaque, it’s opaque by design. Advantage India; and it’s only one such of many. The Chinese dragon has a huge head start over the Indian phoenix, but it says here that in the end the latter will win, because as the software world already knows, the cathedral is inherently inferior to the bazaar.