Comparing China and India: A Look at Premier Li Keqiang’s Government Work Report

Premier Li Keqiang presented the government work report outlining achievements during the last five years as well as future policies and action plans. It’s hard for Indian scholars to escape comparing India to China considering their similar background, size and aspirations.
by Swaran Singh
The first session of the 13th National People’s Congress opens at the Great Hall of the People on Monday. by Xu Xun

In his commencement address to the first session of China’s 13th National People’s Congress on March 5, Premier Li Keqiang presented the government work report outlining China’s achievements during the last five years as well as future policies and action plans.

Meanwhile in India, estimates that the last quarter growth rate hit 7.2 percent compared to 6.5 percent in China prompted widespread media elation in the country. Li’s government work report showed that China achieved an impressive average annual growth rate of 7.1 in the past five years. It should also be noted that the focus of China’s development has been on both growth and equity, yet the country’s annual growth of 6.9 percent in 2017 still surpassed the set target of 6.5 percent. But still it seemed like business as usual considering China’s recent history. 

Indian scholars find it hard to escape comparing India to China considering the two countries’ similar background, size and aspirations. China is undergoing economic and demographic changes, so maintaining such high growth rates will be especially challenging given China’s strong focus on achieving sharp reductions in energy and water consumption per unit of GDP. But as the government work report shows, China’s energy consumption per unit of GDP has already fallen by more than 20 percent over the past five years, resulting in a major and consistent decline in pollution. The total number of heavy air pollution days in key cities has been cut in half over the last five years. This development should be worrisome for New Delhi considering that today 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are found in India.

Another figure in the government work report that can not escape comparison with India is that over the last five years more than 68 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty. Various Indian estimates count over 300 million Indians still living below the poverty line, which is about three times China’s number.

Furthermore, China already has much larger middle class which made over 130 million tourist departures abroad last year. Since 2014, Chinese nationals have been the largest demographic of foreign travelers as well as the single largest source of earnings for the world tourism industry. Indian tourism saw 10 million foreign visits last year.

After China became famous for its role as the factory of the world, India’s “Make in India” campaign has aspired to replicate that magical model. But a true replication would require enormous state funding to support innovation and entrepreneurship. Li’s government work report underlines China’s commitment to strictly controlling its fiscal deficit, which remains a serious challenge for New Delhi. This year, China’s deficit as a percentage of GDP will drop to 2.6 percent compared to India’s 3.9 percent. Similarly, China’s total emissions may measure nearly five times that of India, but China has emerged as a world leader in rectifying its production and consumption processes to address climate change. Presenting a steadfast commitment to leading the charge on climate change mitigation initiatives, Li announced plans to drastically cut production of coal and steel.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement about imposing tariffs and non-tariff barriers on U.S. imports of steel will have little effect on China considering its minuscule volume exported to the U.S. compared to exports to Canada and South Korea. Canada has already been exempted and any action against South Korea would damage its alliance.

In his government work report, Premier Li Keqiang also mentioned the completion of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge, which is a matter of pride and one more historic feat for China’s leadership. As part of the subsequent integration process, Li outlined development plans for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area project.

Also of interest in India was the February 25 announcement of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee’s proposals on a series of amendments to China’s 1982 Constitution, such as removing term limits for president and vice presidents, which is expected to inject endurance in the Belt and Road Initiative and influence New Delhi. Given the strong endorsement of Xi Jinping’s leadership by the 19th CPC National Congress last October, the coming years will bring more of the same policies. This clearly sends signals to all stakeholders in China’s development. 

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a visiting professor at the Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies in Kunming.