At the time of their casting off of colonialism — India gaining independence from Britain in 1947, China putting an end to a century of imperialist domination in 1949 — the two largest countries in Asia shared many common characteristics. Each possessed an enormous continental landmass with a population in the hundreds of millions, the most populous in the world. In both the anti-colonial struggle extended over many decades, with the forces that led to eventual victory having consolidated by the 1920s. Each inherited a fractured territory, with imperialist backed enemies forcing the diversion of limited resources into military preparations and conflicts — India with Pakistan, in three wars, and ongoing clashes over Kashmir, China still colonized in Hong Kong and Macao, divided from Taiwan, with open warfare in Korea, and threatened spillover from Vietnam. Both experienced extreme birth-pains, in the Chinese case the aftermath of occupation and civil war, in the Indian-Pakistani, death and dislocation in the population exchange across their new border, and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. Despite their many obvious differences — China lacked the communal and caste divisions of India, had never been fully colonized, and could rely initially on assistance from the Soviet Union — the two countries began their new national stage in roughly similar shape.
It is in their economic and social profiles, especially, that the two newly emerged nations most closely resembled each other. Before the colonial era, they had been among the richest societies in the world, but under the impact of occupation and exploitation, had rapidly declined. Both had seen their traditional economies undermined by cheap imported goods, and their old system of classes restructured to fit the new global order. In each country, a “feudal” class prevailed in the countryside, allied not only to the urban elites, but to comprador elements tied to the imperialists. The majority of the population in both was either poor peasants or landless laborers. Each faced deep rural poverty, with a small and oppressed urban working class. Demographics were abysmal. Illiteracy and lack of medical care were the norm for the working classes. In the 1940s, life expectancy in India was only around 32, and in China barely three years longer. The situation of women was especially dire, emerging from centuries old traditional oppression, including such barbaric practices as Indian sati and Chinese footbinding. Each faced similar difficulties, therefore, in entering a newly independent national stage.
Yet within just a little over a quarter of a century, these two nations had diverged onto sharply different paths, resulting in a wide and lingering economic and social gap. This divergence had begun even before liberation, in their differing methods of struggle for national power. It would be easy, but simplistic, to attribute these distinct approaches to the non-violence of Mahatma Gandhi, and the revolutionary violence of Mao Zedong. Certainly, the Indian movement was unique in its utilization of civil disobedience. But while Gandhi also stressed the need for economic and societal changes, notably in his adoption of homespun and salt marches to challenge the British monopoly, and his call for an end to the oppression of untouchables or dalits, nevertheless, in the last analysis, the movement he led was a struggle primarily for national independence, not social revolution. Its outcome was the transfer of power to a rising class of Indian bourgeoisie, under Jawaharlal Nehru. Though there were quasi-socialistic aspects to the new India — national planning, state enterprises, social equality as a major goal, and recognition of socialism in the 1976 constitution — the economy was from the beginning a mixed one, and capitalist families such as the Tatas and Birlas, some of whom had been prominent in the fight for independence, rose to dominant economic positions.
Even more significantly, though the feudal role of princely estates was ended by the Nehru government, the stranglehold of large landlords over the rural areas was only partially and unevenly reformed. It was recognized early on that land reform was critical to an independent India, and measures were introduced to stabilize and ameliorate the conditions of tenantry, cap rents, limit the acreage that any one person could own, and eliminate the intermediaries who often brutally enforced the landholding system. These policies did bring relief to some poorer tenants, but mainly benefited the rising class of independent farmers, who had the resources to fully utilize their holdings. Even these measures were only partly successful due to wide variation from state to state, spotty enforcement and rampant corruption, the ability to employ “hidden tenancy” and bypass landholding limitations, and lack of credit, forcing many to turn to moneylenders — often large landholders — at exorbitant interest. As a consequence, though advances were made, especially in West Bengal, Punjab and Kerala, in large parts of the country the system of tenantry and landlessness continued with only partial — if any — significant modification. In the nation as a whole, there was no consistent land reform, or end to the sharp division of rural classes, and hundreds of millions remained heavily exploited and impoverished, especially among the land poor, landless laborers, dalits and adivasis. As a result, though segments of the population gained new opportunities in postcolonial India, and took advantage of its democratic processes to advance their interests, the independence movement was not accompanied by revolutionary social transformation — either before or after 1947. While gradual change brought improvement for some, it did not put an end to the institutional aspects of class exploitation and caste oppression.
It is only against this background that the profoundly different experience of the Chinese socialist revolution can be understood. From the beginning, the struggle led by Mao had united movements for national liberation and revolutionary transformation. The Communist Party had an ideological commitment to the fundamental alteration of class relationships. But the specific form that this took was driven by objective conditions. As shown since immemorial times, and as failure of early efforts at urban based Communist revolution had once again demonstrated, political change in China, in the final analysis, almost always rested on mobilization of the peasantry as its mass base. Under conditions of semi-colonialism, Chinese liberation from imperial domination could only be achieved by again finding a means to tap this latent peasant power. But this required addressing the primary demand of the poor rural population, for land reform and an end to the rule — political and social, as well as economic — of the landlords. It was the recognition by Mao of this relationship of national liberation to revolutionary transformation of the countryside, and his linking of the Communist Party to uprisings already beginning among the peasantry, that laid the basis for eventual victory in 1949. From its earliest stages, therefore, unlike in India, the struggle for independence in China was tied to social revolution, to overthrow the class structure in the rural areas, and by extension, the entire feudal, national bourgeois and comprador alliance.
This transformation began as far back as the 1920s, in regions under Communist control. But it was only after the triumph of the revolution that land reform began to be implemented nationwide, and gradually deepened until it had completely remade the rural areas. Beginning with reduction in rents and simple measures of cooperation, during the Great Leap Forward at the end of the 1950s, it advanced to the creation of the communes, each of which brought together many villages and tens of thousands of peasants under a single administrative authority. The commune was first and foremost a unit of collective agricultural production. But it was much more. For it provided a comprehensive set of benefits, including medical care — which during the Cultural Revolution took the form of “barefoot doctors,” who came from and served the rural population — free schooling for all children, support in old age, and social activities. Large-scale collective organization allowed extensive infrastructure and environmental projects, such as irrigation works, fish ponds, opening of new land, and forestry. It also laid the basis for small “sideline industries,” which provided agricultural and consumer goods, and work in slow seasons. Above all, the communes completely eliminated the old landlord system, took the “sink or swim” pressure off individual families, and allowed all peasants — men and women — a high degree of equality in deciding the distribution of their collective production, while providing an opportunity to share in village level governance.
Much the same system was applied to the industrial working class and to urban professionals. Each large danwei or work unit provided not only guaranteed jobs, but medical clinics, schools, old age pensions, recreational facilities and housing for their employees, the so-called “iron rice bowl.” Workers had a role in the governance of their factories, regarding production policies and working conditions, rights that were further strengthened during the Cultural Revolution, when abusive use of power by many state and party officials, and managers, was challenged. The outcome of these transformations was that income distribution and provision of services became much more equal, and this in turn resulted in a rapid and dramatic improvement in demographics. While Indian life expectancy in 1951 was 32.1, virtually unchanged since independence, the rate in China rose to 40.3 by 1953, and such gains continued. “‘It is probable that the pre-1949 crude death and infant mortality rate were approximately halved by 1957′” (Judith Banister, China’s Changing Population, 63, in Robert Weil, Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of “Market Socialism,” New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996, 236). In the mid-1970s, life expectancy in China reached 63.6 for men and 66.3 for women, compared to an average of only 49.4 in India. By 1980-81, Chinese infant mortality fell to 56 per 1,000 live births, while the Indian level remained at a high 122, and “while India reduced its IMR from 160 before Independence to 85 by 1989-90, China starting from a higher initial level had already reached this point two decades earlier, by 1970” (Utsa Patnaik, “On Famine and Measuring ‘Famine Deaths,'” in Sujata Patel, Jasodhara Bagchi, and Krishna Raj eds., Thinking Social Science in India: Essays in Honour of Alice Thorner, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2002). When literacy is added in, China in 1981 had a “physical quality of life index” of 67 out of 100, with India at 44. In several categories, the Chinese were equal to or above the “middle” countries globally, escaping from “Third World” status. Though China remained among the poorer nations, the level of wellbeing of its working classes had been transformed by revolutionary socialism.
These gains came at a very high cost. A combination of severe natural disasters, overly rigid implementation of policies, exaggerated reporting of grain production and excessive procurement during the Great Leap Forward led to famine conditions in many parts of the country. While debate continues over the scale of the losses and primary responsibility for them, estimates run from several to 30 million “excess deaths.” The loss of life during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution was much smaller, but the social disruption and violence even more severe. The heavy cost of these and other campaigns led by Mao must be weighed against the gains that they achieved, and especially when compared with other countries, such as India. The deaths that accompanied the Chinese efforts to build a socialist society occurred mainly during a few years of intense struggle. But they led to improvements — especially in life expectancy and infant mortality — for hundreds of millions. Similarly, while the movement of the rural population to the cities was restricted, among the more striking results was a virtually total absence of sprawling urban slums that are ubiquitous across much of the global South. During the same period, India avoided famine and the social turmoil found in China. Amartya Sen has argued that Indian democracy and a less collectivized economy helped protect against such losses. But he also noted “that compared with China’s rapid increase in life expectancy in the Mao era, the capitalist experiment in India could be said to have caused an extra four million deaths a year since India’s independence.” As Sen put it, “‘India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame, 1958-61′” (Mobo Gao, The Battle for China’s Past: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, London: Pluto Press, 2008, 139, Sen quote from Antony C. Black, “Black Propaganda,” Guardian Weekly, 2/24/00). Indian democracy blunted class conflict, and allowed for a flourishing of civil society and movements for social change. But it left in place a system of rigid divisions of class and caste, deep impoverishment and widespread malnutrition, a chronic semi-famine in some areas. As a result, from the 1940s-1970s, loss of life from the social conditions of Indian capitalism exceeded several times over those of Chinese socialism.
Beginning around the 1970s, and especially from the 1990s on, the paths of China and India began once again to converge, a process continuing down to today. Despite the gains made for the working classes by the time Mao died in 1976, the struggles that had accompanied them left many Chinese weary of social conflict and violence. There were also limits to what had been achieved. Though the national GDP had expanded greatly, average per capita income remained at a quite low level, only $290 per year — even if still above the $240 in India — in part due to a rapid rise in population, in turn promoted by the improved health conditions. In the rural areas, some one-third of communes were said to be flourishing, another third managing at a moderate level, and the final third facing more serious difficulties. The combination of these factors opened the door once again to those members of the Chinese leadership who had for years opposed the more radical policies of Mao, and had used every period of setback to promote a very different alternative path. After his death, these forces coalesced behind Deng Xiaoping, who began a dismantling of the collective socialist securities for the working classes, and initiated a policy of ever more capitalistic “reforms” and “opening up to the world.” The attack began with the forced dismantling of the communes — regardless of their economic condition — and their replacement by a system of individual “family responsibility contracts” for the land. For a few years, this led to improved incomes in the countryside, as government subsidized crop prices, new agricultural methods were introduced, and farmers cannibalized the former communal socialist accumulation. But these gains were only temporary, and in the process, the collective basis for rural life was shattered, with the rapid collapse of virtually free health care, schools, old age security and other benefits, and the dismantling of infrastructure and environmental projects. As individual farmers increasingly faced the global market, and a “scissors” opened up between costs of production and prices for crops, their relative position declined, and today much of the countryside is in crisis.
In the cities, a “market economy” was also introduced, allowing small businesses to develop, while the door was opened to foreign investment, especially in new Special Economic Zones in the southern and eastern coastal regions. Once these forces were sufficiently developed, an assault was made on the main stronghold of the working class in the urban areas, State Owned Enterprises. Most of these were privatized outright or semi-privatized by putting them in the hands of managers, and party and state authorities, who treated them as their personal property. All corporations were required to operate on a profit basis, and tens of millions of workers were dismissed, losing their right to social securities, and in many cases even their housing. In their place, peasant migrants — now numbering some 130 million — were drawn into the cities, to labor under often brutal working conditions in construction or export factories. These policies laid the basis for an explosive expansion of the Chinese economy, which became “factory to the world.” But in the process, China was transformed from one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, into among the most polarized. Today, a growing number of billionaires live in extreme luxury, while a “new middle class” resemble their peers in rich nations. For workers and peasants there have been certain general gains — a wider variety of food and clothing, and greater access to consumer goods, if they can afford them. But the cost has been exceedingly high, in the loss of jobs and social securities, and tens of millions now form an impoverished “reserve army of labor.” After initially narrowing, the urban/rural gap is widening, and class polarization growing, reviving the prerevolutionary alliance of rich farmers, urban capitalists, and compradors.
In India the changes during this period were in a similar direction, if less dramatic. The Green Revolution, which began in the 1960s, helped improve the conditions of some at first, especially in Punjab, but this only increased the uneven regional development and polarizing of classes, as those who could afford the needed inputs gained the main benefit. Today, the negative ecological and economic effects of a high cost “greening” of farming have led to increasingly nonviable consequences, with falling water tables and rising debt. In much of the rest of the country, the historic lack of adequate land reform continues, a main cause of vast rural impoverishment. Despite some recent state efforts to address it, the situation remains dire. “The number of utterly poor people in India at present is about the same as the entire population of the country in 1947 when India became independent from Britain. The absolute landless and the near landless (those with less than half an acre of land) make up 43% of rural households in India” — unlike in China, where farmers still have a guaranteed right to land (Patralekha Chatterjee, “Land Reform in India: Necessary But Not Sufficient to Fight Poverty,” Development and Cooperation, No. 2, March/April 2002, 21-22). But as in the Chinese case, individual Indian farmers now face the global economy on their own, defenseless against the rising cost of inputs, competition from cheap imports, and a lack of credit.
Like China, India saw an economic explosion as it discarded many of its quasi-socialist remnants and turned toward “free market” neoliberalism. But it is primarily those at the top who have benefited the most, together with a new large middle class of educated elite. In addition to developing industries and natural resources — often driving the poor or indigenous off their land — India has been able to exploit a huge stratum of university graduates in high tech centers such as Bangalore, and its English speakers as the outsourcing capital for U.S. and Anglo service sectors. As in China, however, this has led to highly uneven development. Pockets of the rich and well off, primarily in a few large metropolises, are surrounded by vast urban slums, and a countryside that in many areas remains in deepest poverty, driving tens of millions into the cities, where they swell the ranks of the informal sector and temporary hires used to undercut and replace permanent workers. This sharpening contradiction is starkly revealed in Andhra Pradesh, where despite the rise of Bangalore, agricultural conditions deteriorated so drastically that the state is an epicenter of the suicides of farmers — though they have their counterpart in Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala and elsewhere. As the number of billionaires grows, so do the ranks of the desperately impoverished, under an alliance of rural rich, urban capitalists and compradors, similar to the Chinese.
As the 21st century opens, both China and India are reemerging as global powers. The Chinese have taken the early lead. World Bank figures for 2007 put GDP for China at some $3.28 trillion, almost three times that of India at $1.17 trillion. The gap in per capita income is only slightly less, $2,360 and $950, respectively. Life expectancy in China is 72, that in India just 64. The Chinese literacy rate is around 91, the Indian only in the 60s. Yet the uncontrolled growth in China has left it worse off than India in other respects. The Chinese Gini index, a measure of inequality, is now around 47 — above the “danger level” — while the Indian rate is more than ten points lower. Terrible as the high incidence of farmer suicides in India is — some 200,000 over the past decade or more — in China about the same number of mainly rural residents have killed themselves each year recently, with women in the majority. This is a consequence not only of the desperation of many Chinese farmers in the face of the global “free market,” but of how much they have lost with elimination of former social securities, and the return of a high degree of gender inequality. The demand for greater transparency and democratic rights — though not necessarily following Western or Indian patterns — is widespread in China. These contrasts produce contradictory attitudes toward the Chinese “model” in India — generally divided along class lines. Some Indians, especially in the upper and middle classes, look to the current policies in China, with unrestrained capitalist development tied to a still fairly high degree of state control, as an example to be followed. What they in most cases forget, however, is that though the rapid Chinese rise in recent years results from many causes, it was the “head start” provided by the socialist revolution — in better health, education, infrastructure development and social egalitarianism — that laid the basis for this later advance. Lacking a similar revolutionary transformation, Indian economy lagged in most key economic and demographic indicators already by the late 1970s, and this difference has remained down to the present day.
Many in the Indian working classes and among oppressed communities have not forgotten this lesson. For them, the Chinese “model” is not its current capitalist market system, but the socialist revolution that preceded it under the leadership of Mao. In India today — as well as in Nepal, the Philippines, and elsewhere — Maoist revolutionaries are a growing force, as they try to carry out the social transformation that was never completed after 1947. But they are still active largely in more remote regions, with their main base among the rural poor, dalits and adivasis. Ironically, the current government of China has no use for such revolutionaries, and rejects their claims to “Maoism,” as if it were a copyrighted national brand. While Chinese with a Maoist orientation are again growing in strength, they are limited in their activism, unity, organization and ties to the working classes — and they too have made little efforts to develop links to the Indian followers of Mao. Whether India and China further converge or diverge in the coming period remains to be seen. Many political forces — Gandhian, social democratic, “new left,” as well as Marxist and Maoist — are competing for influence. In both nations the desperation of hundreds of millions in the face of “globalization” is growing, now heightened by the worldwide capitalist crisis. Though each government has shown an ability to buffer some of the worst effects of this collapse, and taken recent measures to ameliorate the burdens on the working classes, in the longer run they will not be able to escape the growing contradictions of world capitalism. Already, in both China and India, protests against ever widening polarization, impoverishment, corruption, land thievery and ecological devastation are growing in number, size and violence. For the Chinese, who had a revolution and then turned back to the capitalist road, it would take a major reversal to once again move toward socialism. India never had a similar revolutionary socialist transformation, but the forces to carry it out are stronger now than ever. The Indian and Chinese working classes and leftist forces today increasingly face parallel conditions under global capitalism led by an imperial U.S. Though they have little contact at present, the future may bring a new unity, as the contradictions of the world capitalist system deepen and drive them more closely together.
Robert Weil is the author of Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of “Market Socialism” and many articles and papers on Chinese political economy, social conditions, and class relations. He has been a lifelong activist in labor, civil rights, international solidarity, environmental, and peace movements. This article was first published in The India Economic Review (31 May 2010); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. See, also, Robert Weil, “Conditions of the Working Classes in China” (Monthly Review, June 2006); and Robert Weil, “City of Youth: Shenzhen, China” (Monthly Review, June 2008).