In the race for influence and prestige in the 21st century, Asia is divided into two burgeoning powers with very different concepts of what will win the development and world leader game. China may have better infrastructure, more universities, and fewer poor, but India represents the model of democratic and free growth. China’s quick development is muddied by its authoritarian government and spurts of human rights abuses. The centralized structure—better organized with streamlined bureaucratic processes—is better suited for fast, expansive development, but sacrifices individual freedoms and a variety of perspectives. Recent events could imply that the “slow and steady” system of India’s elephantine democracy will win the race.

China’s train system—a mark of modernization and national pride—has had significant and tragic challenges this summer, to say the least. July’s tragic high-speed rail crash in Wenzhou that killed 40 and injured almost 200 seemed to bear witness to the problems that come with rapid modernization and development. The trains were built quickly and run fast, but at the expense of detailed evaluation that comes from more voices weighing in on the problem.

Similarly, an escalator accident almost two months ago in a Beijing metro station left one teenager dead and about 30 people injured when it suddenly switched directions. In both events, the Chinese government was quick to blame the manufacturer of the equipment. Following the incidents public outrage exploded. In response, internet censorship of blogs and news sites exacerbated the negative attention already on the government, as newspapers were instructed to only accept stories offering positive remarks on the government’s response. When the machine for growth fails, the people have no ability to affect change for improvement or even offer comment. In China, the CCP may be on a collision course with the greater population.

In stark contrast, government shortcomings and the immediate pangs of development top the headlines of Indian newspapers. India has its own host of developmental and political problems, but at least voices can be heard. Coverage of the Commonwealth Games, which New Delhi hosted in October, was rife with stories of corruption, inefficient construction, and broken promises on the deliverable venues. However, the games went on, and despite pre-game frustrations, were largely a success (and provided a huge incentive to massively expand Delhi’s metro system). Add to this the telecom scandal of the past year, which attracted widespread media attention and public criticism, and significantly shook the government’s reputation. Still, the world’s largest democracy clings to the principle that slow and steady will win the race for a developed, modern society, complete with democratic ideals and values and free media to promote it.

The recent terror attacks in Mumbai, along with India’s long history of terrorist attacks on its homeland and an insurgency in the east, have provided motivation for increased security and monitoring measures, particularly of India’s blogosphere. The Washington Post reported that the new “rules try to maintain a balance between freedom and security.” As the ideal of democracy in a war-torn and authoritarian region, India must work to keep its commitment to democracy, even in the midst of repeated attacks. Certainly, as the debate in Washington roared after 9/11, this balance of security and freedoms is a necessary tension for democracies. Vigilance of the people is needed to keep the balance appropriate and although many in India may find the increased censorship unpalatable, proper perspective is key.

Petitions against the measures were made to Parliament. The government has announced it is accepting input on the new measures. Views counter to the government are loudly blasted over the internet. No one is going to jail based on their opinions. Democracy and a free society are working.

Certainly, the weeks after another deadly attack represent a critical juncture for India as it retools its internet surveillance laws and rethinks its homeland security apparatus (as was the focus of Secretary Clinton’s visit there two weeks ago). The world, and more importantly, the Indian population, is watching. Concern over the new rules—which includes turning in cybercafé logs to the government—is appropriate. Most importantly, the Indian population is empowered and able to do something.

Meanwhile, China continues to shut down free speech even amidst national tragedy to color the story in a way that suits them. Both countries are indisputably approaching world power status. But today India’s population, though poorer, has more freedom than its competition. India is working out its problems as a nation, and that takes patience and endurance.

Events this week on the subcontinent reveal this patience and endurance. The peaceful protests surrounding Anna Hazare, an activist fasting to push the government to pass an anticorruption bill (rampant corruption has reportedly cost the nation billions of dollars) highlight this very Indian form of democracy in action. Even in this slow-paced, highly bureaucratic democracy, the people are showing that they not only have a voice in terms of policy, but in its timeline as well. How does the government respond to Hazare’s fast and call for a gathering at the Prime Minister’s doorsteps? Not with force, but with offers to negotiate with the main opposition.

There are two reasons why India could beat China in the development battle based on its accessible freedom and democracy. First, having no outlet for grievances or public frustration with the government will ultimately lead to instability. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have finally seen the results of this compressed dissatisfaction with the government. And instability, as we have also seen, can lead to major government breakdown. Second, even without instability or an insurgency, the Chinese government is not taking advantage of its human capital. Ideas and criticisms are not freely expressed, and thus the best ideas, options, and solutions are never heard. India is not immune from many of the problems that plague China, but as long as the people keep voicing their opinions and priorities, I can’t help but think slow and steady will, eventually, win out.

Riley Barnes is an assistant director with the International Security Program.