China and India's Rise to the World Stage

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  • 0:11 China and India
  • 0:41 China
  • 4:03 India
  • 6:20 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the rapid and recent economic growth of China and India, and what this development means for both countries and the global community in the 21st century.

China and India

What is the first country that comes to mind when you think of an economic superpower? Perhaps you think of your own country, the United States, or perhaps you think of the banking centers of London in England, or tiny but rich states in Europe like Switzerland or the Netherlands. Regardless of what you think of, chances are your first choice is not India or China. That, however, might be the case if I put that question to your grandchildren! In this lesson, we'll explore the relatively recent rise of both China and India to international prominence.


For most of the 20th century, China remained a closed-off society of over one billion people, with even basic information about the country's economy and people closely guarded by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which took power in the 1940s under the legendary Mao Zedong. Mao ruled over the party and China until his death in 1976. The oppressive governance did not end with Mao's death; the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests for democracy, for example, were violently suppressed by the Chinese army and hundreds were injured or killed in the melee.

However, in the 1990s, under Jiang Zemin, the Chinese government eased some economic restrictions, which allowed Chinese companies, especially those operating within designated 'special economic zones,' to do more trade with foreign nations. Though seen as a positive sign by many Western, capitalist countries who hoped for a complete opening of the Chinese market, the development created huge gaps in wealth between the more urban, coastal areas of China and the still poor, rural interior.

In the first decade of the 21st century, Hu Jintao continued his predecessor's policy of increasing China's openness to foreign trade, as well as increasing China's stature in the global community. Since the turn of the century, China has experienced an unprecedented period of sustained economic growth, with the Chinese government reporting remarkable economic expansion numbers each year, usually somewhere between 8-10%.

Though these numbers have tapered slightly since 2010, the results are real; Chinese society has transformed rapidly. While less than 10% of Chinese households were considered 'middle-class' at 2000, by 2006 that number had risen to 39%. Some estimates claim that number will rise to over 60% by 2016. These numbers gain even greater importance when you consider the scope of China. With more than 1.3 billion citizens, even 2006's numbers place more people in the Chinese middle-class than the entire population of the United States!

The rise of the Chinese middle-class has transformed China and the global economy with it. This burgeoning middle class has the same voracious appetite for consumer goods and luxury items that middle-class consumers had in the United States in the 20th century. For example, China is now widely considered the largest automotive market in the world, and automotive manufacturers from around the world are anxious to be allowed into China's still tightly-controlled economy.

In addition to China's newfound economic prowess, the Chinese government has increased their interest in maintaining and expanding their regional and global influence. Though publicly China remains committed to peaceful development, in practice, the Chinese have shown no fear in using military force and little respect for disputed territory. For example, in summer 2014, the Chinese placed an oil platform in the South China Sea, waters that both China and Vietnam claimed. At the same time, China held live-fire war games in the East China Sea, dangerously close to islands claimed by both Japan and China. Other global political realities, such as the United States' close alliance with Japan and Korea, China's building of a navy, and the U.S. government's pledge to defend the sovereignty of Taiwan, which China claims is part of China, further complicate matters. The direction of China's economy, as well as its regional and global foreign policy, will likely affect global events in the remainder of the 21st century.


To the southwest of China is the 21st century's other great economic success story: India. India experienced a different path to economic success than China, though its results are similar. First of all, India does not possess the ruling communist party in control of all government affairs that China does. Instead, India is a post-colonial democracy only freed from the shackles of British colonialism in 1947. For the first few decades of Indian independence, the country had a socialist-leaning government that also tended to be more corrupt than not.

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