I was traveling across Eastern China on a high-speed train last summer when my Chinese host from the U.S.-China Exchange Foundation, who had recently visited India, my native country, asked: “Why are there so many poor people on the streets of Indian cities?” I was taken aback because I had been wondering just the reverse about her country: Why are there so few poor people in Chinese cities?
The visibility of India’s poor is a big weakness when it comes to impressing tourists. But from the standpoint of dealing with the poor’s plight, it might actually signal Indian democracy’s strength.
Compared to Indian cities, China’s major cities are a vision of loveliness. It’s as if a wave of liberalization swept through them, washed them clean, lifted their residents out of poverty, and saved them from all the intervening ugliness and misery that industrializing societies have historically experienced. They have a balletic freeway system; snazzy shopping malls; stylish skylines. And there are more homeless folks wandering around in New York and Washington D.C. than in Shanghai and Beijing.
By contrast, liberalization has been a mixed blessing for Indian cities, producing both enormous progress and enormous problems. Malls, metros, and freeways are cropping everywhere, as in China. However, for every mall that appears, so does a slum colony—often right next to it. People are getting richer, but their quality of life in some respects is deteriorating as rapid urbanization strains roads and other infrastructure, giving Indian cities the feel of dense concrete jungles choking on their own growth.
One big reason why Chinese cities are in far better shape than India’s is that China’s autocracy has managed growth far more rationally than India’s democracy. It has made a conscious effort to build up urban infrastructure to support China’s export-led modernization, investing $116 per head on capital expenditures annually—more than six times India—according to a 2010 McKinsey Global Institute report.
But the darker half of China’s beauty secret is that it controls domestic migration through a draconian internal passport system called hukou. Under hukou, every citizen is assigned a status—urban or rural—upon birth, creating a kind of locational apartheid. If people want to move outside their birth hukou, they need official permission, which was virtually impossible to get before liberalization. Now, thanks to the need for cheap labor in China’s urban factories, men can get permission by paying a fee. Women have to pay—and take a pregnancy test to prove that they are not moving to evade birth control restrictions!
Once hukou migrants—dubbed the “the floating population”—arrive in cities, their living options are mainly consigned to ghettos, invisible to tourists. Beijing authorities are so determined to keep them sequestered that, on the pretext of dealing with rising crime, last July they began walling off native neighborhoods—erecting fences and posting guards to check identity papers before letting anyone in.
But hukou restricts more than mobility. It restricts social services too. Migrants are not entitled to any of the social services that urban residents get unless they convert their temporary visa to permanent residency, something that is exceedingly hard to do. “They can’t get admission in city public schools or get adequate health insurance or other subsidized services or even city bus passes,” notes Professor Kam Wing Chan, a hukou expert at the University of Washington. Hukou makes city life so hard that many couples leave their children home to be raised by grandparents, breaking up families.
Just when China embraced hukou, India enshrined freedom of movement in its constitution, empowering rural families to move to cities at will. And once they are there, the government can control neither their social benefits (paltry though they are, consisting mainly of subsidized rations and schools) nor where they live. Any attempt at Chinese-style sequestration would trigger massive protests by activists and the opposition, dooming an administration that even tried. The upshot is that migrants are an ubiquitous presence in Indian cities, densely interwoven into the fabric of life like embroidery in a brocade blouse.
In many respects, Indian migrants are worse off than their Chinese counterparts. Basic amenities—drinking water, sewage facilities, housing—are better in China’s ghettos than in India’s slums. Worse, the perception that villagers are straining roads and services is triggering an ugly nativist backlash in many cities. A virulent “sons of soil” party in Mumbai has been roughing up slum residents to force them to return home.
But there is one thing Indian migrants have that the Chinese don’t: the vote. Before every election, politicians hold voter registration drives in slums, making it hard for nativists to gain political traction. But they won’t be permanently defeated unless the country’s urban infrastructure is improved. To do that, India will need to up its infrastructure spending from $17 to $134 per head over the next decade—or $1.2 trillion, double what is currently slated, McKinsey estimates. This won’t be easy given that influential agrarian activists unhappy with India’s urban-centered economic renaissance will fight spending on cities.
But India’s infrastructure issues, while difficult, are nothing compared to the problems China faces in assimilating its migrants. That’s because half-a-century of social engineering has decimated China’s civil society, something that will be much harder to rebuild than roads and power lines.
China’s one-child policy has undermined the safety net that the elderly normally rely on in traditional societies. This is one problem India does not have thanks to its democracy that put a decisive end to its brief flirtation with draconian population control through enforced sterilization in the 1970s. Hence, India’s tightly-knit extended family structure is largely intact, a gift of freedom to the country’s elderly.
Since China no longer has such a private safety net, its aging migrants will need a public one—just what hukou denies them. If China fails to extend hukou benefits, its large and disaffected underclass of deracinated, rural population might become a political tinderbox, ready to explode. Yet doing so won’t be easy. The McKinsey study projects that this will require diverting 2.5 percent of China’s urban GDP to its migrants by 2025. This means either spending cuts, especially on infrastructure—something that would risk puncturing the asset bubble that many believe has been artificially keeping China’s economy afloat. Or trimming the hukou benefits of middle-class natives and extending them to migrants.
Both strategies have massive political downsides—precisely because China does not have a ballot box to resolve them. All its autocracy has is brute force, which might have worked so long as the economic pie was growing. But redistributing that pie coercively is an entirely different matter.
China, then, has not yet fully absorbed the consequences of destroying its civil society—and India hasn’t yet fully reaped the rewards of letting its flourish. So when it comes to looking after the most vulnerable, appearances aside, India’s pell-mell democracy might yet outperform China’s hyper-rational autocracy.
去年夏天，我乘坐高铁穿越中国东部。接待我的人来自美中交流基金会，他刚刚访问过印度 - 我的祖国。他问我：“为什么印度城市的街上有那么多穷人？”我很吃惊，因为我一直在思考，为什么他的国家正好相反,中国城市里基本看不到穷人呢？
和中国相比，自由化对印度城市的影响喜忧参半，巨大的发展和巨大的问题相伴而来。商场、地铁、高速公路纷纷出现，无处不在，和中国一样。不过，每座商场建成的同时也会出现一个贫民窟 - 通常就在商场旁边。印度人越来越富裕，不过从某些角度看来，他们的生活质量在恶化 - 快速城市化过程中涌现出的道路和其他建筑对印度人来说就像混凝土森林般让人呼吸困难。
离开家乡进城以后，他们摇身一变，成了所谓的“流动人口”。他们的生活空间主要限于贫民区 - 游客看不到的地方。北京当局坚决对这些人口实行管制，甚至以控制不断上升的犯罪率为借口，对“流动人口”聚集区进行“封闭式管理” - 架设围栏、配备警卫，进入隔离区的每个人需接受身份检查。
既然家庭的养老体系不再保险，老年移民就需要社会赡养。不过户口制度对他们说：不！如果中国不能缩小城镇户口和农村户口的福利差距，心怀不满且人口众多的农村人口很可能变成一个随时会爆炸的政治火药桶。反过来，中国要解决这个问题也不轻松，需要在2025年前把每年城市GDP的2.5%投入到新移民身上。这不仅意味着控制政府支出，特别是基础设施建设支出 - 房地产泡沫可能因此破灭，而在很多人眼里，这恰是中国经济高位运行的基底。还可能缩减当地中产阶级的户籍福利，转而惠及新移民。
这两种对策都有极大的政治弊端，原因恰恰是中国缺乏一个 - 投票箱。所有的专政都有其野蛮的力量。只要经济馅饼在增大，就能看到这种力量。不过重新分配馅饼指望不上这种强大的野蛮力量。
The US Congress moved closer to punishing China for allegedly manipulating its currency, as a key committee of the House of Representatives voted to advance legislation that could