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With President Hu Jintao of China in town and staying less than a mile from my home, and a long-term trip to India for me just five days away, I'm reminded of a question that often surfaces in Foolish stock circles: China or India? Which one will be the greater economic story?
There's no definitive answer for now. And in the end, any answer may prove irrelevant as both will surely be huge parts of the 21st century's economic history. But, for the sake of fun, why not have a go.
If I were forced to choose, my vote would go to India. Here's why.
The difference between the two
Ignoring the fact that I'm half-Indian and am intrinsically biased, much of my faith in India's story is based on what most people find so completely unappealing about the place. Before I get into it, however, let me say that I'm about to generalize pretty broadly, and significant exceptions exist to everything I'm about to say. For the sake of argument, though, stick with me.
China's success since reformation and economic liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s has largely been a story of what the government has done for it. Policy makers in the country have indisputably created a powerful money-making machine, capable of fueling the entire world's thirst for cheap goods. India's situation is very much the opposite.
For decades now, the Indian government has inevitably found a way to hold back or otherwise handicap economic growth. Look no further than the sad state of the country's infrastructure, its immensely convoluted legal systems, and the imposing regulatory hurdles that businesses face just trying to operate there to confirm this point. With all of those obstacles, India is succeeding anyway.
The larger point is that whereas one nation's government has been a key component in its nation's economic success, another's economic success has come largely in spite of its government.
The Chinese have proven adept at picking favorites in specific industries and allowing them to flourish. China Mobile (NYSE: CHL ) and PetroChina (NYSE: PTR ) are perfect examples. They certainly aren't the only players in either industry, but these state-run companies are absolute powerhouses, primarily because they have the unconditional support of their government and the unspoken license to dominate their respective industries.
But this type of careful manipulation comes at a cost -- dynamism within industry can be easily suppressed. Take careful notice that the profits of these two companies together recently surpassed the profits of the nation's top 500 private companies combined.
On the flip side, look at India and its mobile telephone industry to witness the fierce battle being fought at every level for every piece of the capitalism pie. The industry (and others like it) may not be nearly as neat and polished as comparables in China, but it's undoubtedly competitive.
Just recently, a massive, multibillion-dollar scandal has erupted in India embroiling many of the nation's most important mobile telecom players. Corruption is, of course, a wasteful and shameful part of business in India (and to some extent, in China, too), but hey, at least companies are vying for a seat at the table. Unlike one or several state-run favorites that enjoy the fruits of favoritism, the mobile telecom industry in India is dynamic with players like Vodafone (NYSE: VOD ) , Bharti Airtel, Reliance Communications, Tata Teleservices and many more battling each other -- all probably taking part in these shenanigans individually.
I don't like corruption on any level, but I certainly prefer raw competition to the orchestral manipulation of a hands-on government. In the end, I believe it benefits Indian companies to have to go through that type of process.
Night and day apart
There's something significant to be said for a nation that can manage to eke out year after year of blistering growth in a political and regulatory environment of such questionable efficacy as India's. Imagine what India would be capable of with Chinese-like efficiency in place?
I prefer India to a large extent because the value-bent investor in me sees India as a raw, somewhat mismanaged asset whose inner value is just waiting to be unleashed. When I consider China, with its carefully controlled processes, I see a growth stock that seems to need all the dominos to fall just so in order to continue on its path. In India, the dominos never fall just so (chaos is part of life), and yet the nation is coming along quickly anyhow.
There is an inherent attraction to things that are created organically in life like this. True, there are massive problems in India, which are both open and notorious. But why shouldn't there be? Meanwhile, there is an inherent distrust of the highly manufactured growth that I sense is coming from China. There may be problems, but we'll never know until it's too late because the government controls the flow of information so carefully.
The point is that massive growth in India is an accidental by-product. Growth in China is the product. See the difference?
It's only the beginning …
If the individual consumer in China can force industry to evolve dynamically (without the assistance of the government), little will stop the country from becoming the giant that it is expected to be. After all, China has already done so much to tackle the logistical issues involved in becoming a superpower, whereas India most certainly has not. But, I'm not sure when that day will be.
In the meantime, Indians are quickly learning how to thrive outside of the protective umbrella of governmental favoritism and within the boiling cauldron of fierce competition. I believe the lessons learned during this period will transform India into a dynamic, competitive, and intriguing business destination for centuries to come. But will it be the giant of Asia?
What do you say? Leave your comments below. If you'd like to follow Nick on his India adventure, follow his Twitter feed right here.