In 2011 I travelled to China for the first time in 10 years. As soon as I stepped off the plane in Shanghai it was hard to ignore the sense of possibility. Here was a nation on the rise despite all of its complexities, its catalogue of political and social issues and its increasingly fragile relationship between state and subject.
In Shanghai, growth felt unquestionable and the possibility for new businesses, buildings and ideas limitless. I was well aware that poverty had been pushed to the fringes, I knew there were reasons that homelessness seemed invisible. But there was an energy to the city that couldn’t be ignored.
These observations sprang to mind again recently on my first trip to another BRICS powerhouse, India. We’ve often lamented that acronym here at Monocle but it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the two nations. Both have similarly sized populations, both are moving through an age of economic liberalism and growth – two Asian nations with a rapidly expanding middle class and both are known internationally for their distinctive national cuisines.
But driving into Delhi from Indira Ghandi International Airport, I couldn’t help but feel the similarities really do stop there. The roads are chaotic. What may have once been striking buildings are now hungry for paint and restoration. Poverty surrounds you – from small children begging for change at traffic lights to the sightings of makeshift tents which have popped up at regular intervals around the city. Even in more affluent areas, I got the feeling that there were more pressing concerns for local government than keeping the streets clean and tidy.
And the traffic – wow, the traffic. Cars, rickshaws, bicycles and brightly decorated trucks slide around the road, straddling lanes, kissing bumpers and darting into whatever gaps they can see – no matter how tight. Horns beep in a constant cacophony. These arteries feel like a metaphor for the nation – a machine that speeds up as often as it grinds to a halt, a system that feels horribly inefficient, lacking in safeguards, but somehow just works.
Shanghai and Delhi left me with two very different images of nations who are economically on the rise and perhaps it comes down politics. In India’s democracy, where people have more freedom to choose how to direct their energies, the problems are there for all to see. In China, where collective power is ploughed into the future – whether the individual agrees or not – you have to dig a little deeper before you understand the real issues.
It may take me another decade before I decide which is the better for it. But despite the chaos, the noise and the moments of frustration, there is something to be said for a bit of freedom.
Katie Bilboa is a producer for Monocle 24