Despite recent growth, political oppression will keep the Asian tiger on a tight leash.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- On behalf of thousands of peasants from his native village, Ma Wenlin, a self-taught lawyer in northern China, sued the local government in 1997 to recover taxes that had been illegally assessed.
His chances didn't look too bad: Neighboring peasants had just won a similar case, a result that the Chinese press trumpeted as proof of the progress in the country's legal system.
In Ma's case, though, the courts refused even to hear the suit. Many of his clients were harassed and imprisoned for their presumption. When Ma persisted, going as far as petitioning the highest authorities in Beijing, he was arrested, taken into custody, beaten, and convicted of "disrupting social order."
His sentence: five years hard labor.
Ma Wenlin's story, told in Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China by Ian Johnson, is first of all a specific human tragedy, both for him and for his overburdened clients, who scrape a mean living from the soil of the Loess Plateau, only to have their savings confiscated by corrupt, greedy and unaccountable officials.
But it also evokes a larger question: Are the impulses that animate the repression against the likes of Ma a comparative economic disadvantage for China?
And if so, might India, with its radically different traditions of democracy and freedom, eventually surpass China as an economic force?
At first glance, the answer to the latter question seems obvious: no. In 1980, China and India had roughly the same income per head; now China's is about double, fueled by a growth rate (9 percent) half again as brisk as India's. China gets more than 10 times as much foreign direct investment, and has five times India's share of world trade.
China has higher literacy and better infrastructure. It takes a month to start a business in China, and three in India. China has more savings, less debt and less poverty....