The world’s two most populous nations, China and India, are in a new kind of rivalry, one that goes beyond their usual contest over global might and economic bragging rights. They each now have a leader waging a strong campaign against entrenched corruption in their country.
On Monday, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s new prime minister after winning an election in which voters saw him as the best hope for clean governance. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party rode to victory on popular resentment against the long-ruling Congress party and its history of corruption and patronage.
In China, meanwhile, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, who became president last year, is in the early stages of a crackdown on corrupt party officials and others. He pledges to go after both “tigers” (powerful figures) and “flies” (low-level bureaucrats). On Friday, for example, a mining tycoon in Sichuan, Liu Han, was sentenced to death for running a mafia-like criminal organization. The sentence is seen as a prelude for the prosecution of a former powerful party leader, Zhou Yongkang.
The two leaders in China and India have different motives for their campaigns, ones that suggest which country will win this new competition for running an honest government that serves the people.
Mr. Xi’s campaign is based on his worry that the Chinese might someday rise up against the party and its monopoly hold on power in a backlash against personal enrichment by officials. Many of China’s wealthiest people are connected to state-run enterprises, including those controlled by the military. A recent survey by researchers at the University of Michigan found that China has a larger gap between the rich and poor than the United States. A 2012 poll of Chinese citizens also showed income inequality as the most significant social challenge.
Since 1980, when the Chinese were given license by the party to “get rich,” the drive for private wealth has left the country searching for a moral compass. Xi’s campaign, tied mainly to the party’s survival, does not come with any spiritual purpose, other than weak references to the once-denounced writings of Confucius. The party also does not subject itself to elections and being held accountable for its actions.
This June 4 marks the 25th anniversary of the pro-democracy Tiananmen uprising, an event the party ignores in its official history. While Xi punished those who call for democracy, he has taken up the second demand in those 1989 protests – tackling official corruption.
In India, anticorruption protests erupted in 2011, led by ascetic Anna Hazare. They helped bring down the Congress party and led to Mr. Modi’s election victory. Now he and his party will also be held accountable in the next general election for their transparency in governance and their anticorruption successes.
Both China and India have a long way to go in making institutional reforms that dampen corruption. Yet their respective roles in the world as well as their economies depend on such reforms. Which one will succeed? With their immense populations, this contest over clean governance could shape the history of the 21st century. Given India’s democratic roots, it has the early jump over China.