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Why Chinese model has not benefitted Africa

Arthur Guseni Oliver Mutambara
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Diverse views have been expressed about the Chinese socio-political and economic model.

These range from the Chinese themselves, who of course, uncritically praise their system as a faultless model, their competitors in the West who condemn it outright as reprehensible and undesirable, and Africans who are of mixed, confused and unthought-out emotions.

Some folks from the continent, who are unquestioning disciples of the market, naively, unscientifically, and primitively denounce the Chinese model primarily on behalf of their Western associates or because of their terrible experiences with, and or fears of, a disempowering and corrupt one-party state.

This disparaging and disdainful African attitude is exacerbated by the parasitic and self-serving nature of some of the current (and past) Chinese business expeditions in the continent.

“The Beijing model is a non-starter. It leads to a corrupt one-party state. That system is evil.

In any case, look at how the Chinese are short-changing us in business deals on the continent.”

That is the African pontificating in both ignorance and despair, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.

Most Africans who defend, eulogise and embrace the Chinese political and economic system are usually unrepentant despots with an insatiable affinity for undemocratic practices, the one-party state system, misgovernance and corruption.

They have an inordinate lust for autocratic power and unreservedly despise accountability, transparency and good governance.

In their wicked and perverted minds, the Chinese model would deliver goodies to fulfil their self-interests as political elites.

However, they do not express their diabolic intentions publicly.

Instead, they say: “Development is more important than democracy. Let us follow the Chinese way and attain radical economic transformation. We must pick up lessons from China.” Of course, learning from China is what they do not do.

Well, both groups of Africans are wrong in their assessment of the Chinese model.

Their critiques are as unsound as they are unscientific.

Indeed, there is poverty and a dearth of analysis with respect to the efficacy of the Chinese political and economic system.

China and Africa: The state of play

Right from the start, let us state the summarised factual and empirical position, which we can then demonstrate and explain in the ensuing discussion.

The Chinese model has worked for China and the Chinese people.

There is no question about that.

However, no African country has been able to replicate this model in its entirety effectively.

Hence, no African country has unlocked any of the positive attributes that China has enjoyed. Furthermore, Chinese business activities on the continent have largely failed to advance African economies.

In some cases, the Chinese have ruined African economies by egregious natural resource stripping without beneficiation, ruinous financing arrangements and supporting and sustaining despotic regimes.

Hence, the Chinese model has neither benefited Africa as a transportable developmental model nor as a basis for commercial diplomacy, trade and economic partnership.

Yes, the Chinese model and activities have not and will not likely benefit Africa in the future.

Yes, Africa state capitalism (efforts to replicate the Chinese model) has failed in Africa. These are fair observations.

However, one cannot judge the Chinese model by African failures to replicate it.

There are good reasons why this decontextualised adoption of the model, has been unsuccessful.

More importantly, the Chinese relationship with Africa post-liberation has been, for the most part, parasitic and self-serving.

This has damaged Africa while benefiting China. You cannot blame China for that.

We must blame ourselves.

The Chinese folks doing business in post-independent Africa are not the comrades of chairman Mao’s era.

They are shrewd businesspeople, in most cases shrewder and savvier than their western counterparts.

They are viciously and mercilessly chasing cash.

The Chinese in Africa are not Father Christmas. There is no love, comradeship or charity involved. Just cash.

If the African is disorganised, does not put together a capable technocratic team selected on merit, they will be shafted by the Chinese.

They do not think twice about taking advantage of an incompetent and desperate government.

When that happens, why do we blame the Chinese?

We must blame our incorrigibly incompetent and corrupt selves.

Even the so-called donations from China to African countries, they are not exactly free.

Each freebie is tied to a commercial sale in which the African has no say on the unit price.

The foolish African ends up paying more than they would have paid if it were a purely commercial transaction. Sad. Tragic.

The current Covid-19 vaccine donations and sales to African countries are a good demonstration of this maleficence — the Chinese mischief.

More significantly, why are we approaching China as small, fragmented states without bargaining power?

We must not engage with China as individual countries.

No. We are too small to unlock any meaningful economic value as individual nations.

We get short-changed. Even South Africa, with 58.6 million people and a US$351 billion GDP, is too small to engage with China meaningfully.

The same applies to Nigeria, with its population of 201 million and a GDP of US$448 billion.

We must engage with China as one continental economic bloc — the African Union (AU) and its AfCFTA (African Continental Free Trade Area).

This is a colossal economy consisting of a population and market of 1,3 billion Africans, a potential GDP of US$2,5 trillion and a massive collective resource base.

The scale, scope and impact of this gigantic continental bloc will give us the leverage to unlock economic value when we interface with China.

This AU framework should be the only front we present to China in all negotiations, deals and financial relationships.

There should be no bilateral deals between any individual African country and China.

As just explained, SA and Nigeria are not big enough to unlock economic value in bilateral deals with China.

Indeed, there are many good reasons why the Africa-China relationships have not benefited Africa.

However, these terrible African experiences cannot then be transplanted into a simplistic dictum that the Chinese model does not work. No.

The Chinese model has worked extremely well for China. Period. Whether it has helped Africa or will help Africa is a different conversation.

Strengths of the Chinese model

The Chinese model’s strengths are ably articulated by Zhang Weiwei, a Chinese international relations professor at Fudan University.

He is also a senior research fellow at the Chunqiu Institute. Weiwei is the author of the book, The China Wave: Rise of a Civilisational State.

He identifies merits and flaws in the Chinese system and contrasts the China model with Western equivalents.

He argues that although the Chinese model is not perfect, it a strong alternative model to Western ones and more significantly, it has delivered for the Chinese people.

China’s economic ascendancy has attracted global attention, and many pundits and scholars have focused on the country’s economic aspects of the model.

However, equally important are the political aspects of the model.

Quietly, Beijing has established a system of meritocracy called “selection and election” where competent leaders are selected on the basis of performance and broad support after a vigorous process that includes screening, opinion surveys, internal evaluations and elections.

This process is anchored in the Confucian tradition of meritocracy — a Chinese philosophical framework.

Leaders are judged, appraised, and chosen based on their experience and competence in poverty eradication, job creation, local economic growth, social development, and, increasingly, environmental protection.

The Chinese model is organised around the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with its various structures such as the National People’s Congress, the politburo of the CCP, and CCP advisory panels anchored in their Chinese concepts of solidified consensus, democratic supervision, dynamic democratic centralism, continuous renewal and rejuvenation.

All this is grounded in socialism and capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

They put a premium on Chinese culture, values, history and interests.

According to the assertive and overconfident Weiwei: “Today’s Chinese system of meritocracy makes it inconceivable that anyone like George W. Bush or Donald Trump could ever come close to the position of top leadership.”

What a vicious, but incisive put-down of the world’s leading democracy!

Indeed, the much-touted Western popular democracy model has its own weaknesses.

It has been described as “the least bad option”, which allows for the exit of bad leaders like Trump.

Nevertheles, why does the system even allow the ascendency of such ignoramuses to the presidency?

The Chinese are not impressed by that flaw.

The Chinese model embodies a meritocratic system of “the best of the best options”, where leaders of the highest expertise, capacity and calibre are chosen.

The system combines the best option of selecting well-tested competent leaders and the least bad option of ensuring the exit of incompetent and corrupt ones. In fact, corrupt leaders are shot!

None of the African leaders, who have tried to copy the Chinese model uncreatively has executed any of their colleagues for corruption.

In fact, they prosecute and incarcerate those who fight against corruption.

Surely, the Chinese model cannot work in such a corruption-tolerant environment.

Let us say more about the calibre and pedigree of the Chinese leader.

A brief review of recent key Chinese leaders’ qualifications shows the preponderance of highly technical expertise in particular engineering.

The following recent Chinese presidents demonstrate this: Xi Jinping (chemical engineer), Hu Jintao (civil engineer) and Jiang Zemin (electrical engineer).

A similar pattern is observed with respect to Chinese premiers: Wen Jiabao (geo-mechanical engineer – postgraduate), Zhu Rong (electrical engineer) and Li Keqiang (lawyer and PhD in economics).

The politburo standing committee (PSC) is the supreme organ that consists of the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership.

Historically it has been composed of five to  11 members, and currently, it has seven members.

Over the past three decades, on average, 80% of the PSC members have been engineers.

There you have it, Africans — technology-savvy leadership matters.

Our governments are dominated by lawyers, political scientists, economists, business majors, historians, teachers and noisy unskilled activists.

Some African countries have never had an engineer in Cabinet.

Why are we surprised if our efforts to replicate the Chinese fail?

It is also important to note that every 10 years, all the top leaders are changed without exception in the Chinese model.

There is a new president and a new premier every decade, without exception.

That is political renewal and rejuvenation on steroids, achieved without popular democracy.

Of course, African leaders who eulogise the Chinese model do not like this aspect.

For example, Robert Mugabe was in power for 37 years, Kenneth Kaunda (27 years), Julius Nyerere  (21 years) and Muammar Gaddafi  for 42 years.

Obviously, this lack of leadership renewal is part of the rationale why any efforts at duplicating the Chinese model have been disastrous on the continent.

Of course, in 2018, the Chinese took a strategic review of the two-term limits (10-year renewal) to accommodate their rapid growth ambitions and address their geopolitical concerns through ensuring continuity and strong leadership.

Again, this shows that model is dynamic and can be changed by the Chinese in pursuit of Chinese interests.

It is not some dogmatic and unchangeable disposition borrowed or imposed from some foreign land.

They introduced it, and it served its purpose.

Circumstances demanded a different tactic, so they changed the provision.

In future, depending on their strategic interests and prevailing challenges, they might re-introduce it.

That is the Chinese model, totally controlled by the Chinese.

They do not have to please any prying and uninvited external players, such as the United States.

Their retort to the Americans would be very apt and crude: “Mind your business. Our economy is performing better than yours. If we withdraw our investments from your country, your economy will collapse! More importantly, we will soon be overtaking you GDP-wise anyway.  Give us a break!” When you are successful, no one can patronise you. Game recognises game.

Indeed, it is self-evident that the Chinese model is more about leadership, rather than showmanship and ability to raise campaign finance, as exemplified by the United States.

We must understand that China’s meritocratic governance challenges the traditional dichotomy of “democracy versus autocracy”.

The content or substance is as important as the form.

Within the one-party state system, the Chinese have delivered good governance, competent leadership, poverty eradication, and shared economic prosperity.

Despite its many limitations, including a democratic deficit and disrespect of human rights, the Chinese model has produced the world’s fastest-growing economy and has dramatically enhanced the quality of life for most Chinese people.

Successes of the Chinese model

At this point, it is instructive to enumerate the successes of the Chinese model.

Let us walk through some of the statistics that demonstrate how the model has worked for the country.

China was able to pull 800 million people out of poverty since 1978. They ended abject poverty (US$2 a day existence) in February 2021.

Their GDP is US$14.3 trillion, the second largest after United States (US$21.4 trillion).

In fact, China is poised to overtake the United States as the world biggest economy in 2027.

In March 2021, experts in the United States predict that China will be the world’s artificial intelligence (AI) superpower ahead of the United States in AI innovations and other Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies (4IR).

Clearly, it is an undisputed fact that the Chinese model delivered and continues to deliver economic prosperity for its citizens while propelling China towards unquestionable global dominance.

From a backward and struggling nation right into the second biggest economy globally, now closing in to be the biggest economy in the world.

That is a miracle. A nuclear power with the largest army in the world and a thriving space programme.

China is also the number one trading partner for Africa and is emerging as the geostrategic investor and partner to the continent.

Furthermore, the decentralised and delocalisation of production and productivity has benefited the Southeast Asian economies, boosting regional economic development.

All these achievements are due to the successful Chinese model.

Even on Covid-19 it is containing the pandemic better than the Western countries.

China is the most active nation in vaccine research and development, and manufacturing.

It has produced no less than five different vaccines.

Their products Sinopharm and Sinovac have proven to be safer and more efficacious than their Western competitors.

If the preceding articulated Chinese achievements are not evidence of a successful political and economic model, then success has no definition.

One cannot think of any other political and economic model, which would have delivered these gains to China.

Let us give the devil his due.

It is imperative to note that this is a model wholly owned by the Chinese and independently designed by them while leveraging their own history, culture, values and intellectual strengths.

It is not copied or imposed from elsewhere.

If we as Africans can design and develop a model, where 20% of the above achievements are attained, we would have come of age.

Yes, we can discuss the costs of the Chinese successes or the sustainability of their model .

Those are fair questions, but the same questions can be asked about the US political and economic model, or any other model for that matter.

Indeed, the state is not the answer for everything. Similarly, the market has its limitations.

Africans must not be too harsh and unscientific on state capitalism in China.

A damning indictment of the Chinese model, as a system is problematic.

Yes, given our failed experiments with the Chinese model on the continent and our less than satisfactory economic partnerships with  them, we can argue that China’s state capitalism is not the answer for Africa. However, we must unequivocally accept that it has worked for them as the Chinese people.

Sadly, in their naive and unsophisticated understanding of the state, some Africans do trash the Chinese model; without any nuances or intelligent thought.

Some folks implicitly dispute the possibility of successful Chinese state capitalism in China for China.

This is unscientific. The Chinese model’s efficacy as a unique system for the Chinese, benefiting the Chinese, is beyond doubt.

The Chinese model and infrastructure

I have been to China about seven times, every time I am impressed as if it is my first time!!

The mega-cities, extensive and massive finished and in-progress infrastructure projects. It is all daunting.

Shanghai makes New York look like Mutare!

The Chinese model has enabled China to successfully embark on, and complete massive 10–15-year projects, whose individual impact on the economy is staggering

For example, consider the Three Gorge Dam with an installed capacity of 22 500 MW.

This is the largest hydro dam in the world. Construction started in 1994, and the project completed in 2012, after a cost of US$32 billion.

They put it together without the International Monetary Fund or World Bank. In fact, the West tried to sabotage the construction.

The Chinese prevailed, using domestic resources.

There are lessons for us right there. This dam is an engineering marvel with phenomenal socio-economic impact.

Energy is development. Development is energy.

For comparison, Grand Inga Dam would be 40 000 MW and overtake Three Gorge as the largest in the world, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently under construction, is 6 350 MW.

Also, Itaipu Dam in Brazil and Paraguay is 14 000 MW installed capacity, another Chinese dam Xiluodu Dam is 13 860 MW installed capacity, and our own Kariba Dam  is 1 626 MW.

Clearly, the Grand Inga Dam would be a game-changer in Africa.

It will dramatically transform the socio-economic fortunes of the entire continent.

However, as Africans, we have been talking about the Grand Inga Dam for close to a century, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.  No action.

Are there any lessons from the Chinese model on how to get that project off the ground?

Continental internal resource mobilisation, continental economies of scale, leverage a 1,3 billion people tax base, unity and leadership, sacrifice the short-term inconveniences for the long-term collective good, use of world-class technology.

The limitations of the Chinese model

No doubt, the Chinese model has issues. Some of the limitations of the model have already been articulated. It is intolerant of dissent.

They will crush any threat perceived as existential for the ‘collective good’.

They will execute corrupt officials by firing squad, which is not such a bad idea!

In a crisis, they unashamedly suspend any pretence to democratic freedoms and rights as they did during Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2019 and  2020.

All these are the harsh, but necessary manifestation of the model.

In fact, some scholars have argued that if the Chinese authorities had not decisively crushed the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, their system could have collapsed, as did the USSR in 1990. The Chinese authorities had to silence the students swiftly and brutally.

In summary, the weaknessez of the Chinese model include conflation of the state and party, egregious and predatory lending in Africa, abuse of human rights, and disrespect for civil liberties and political rights

Oh yes, they are some objectionable matters with the Chinese model currently and historically.

Obviously, the Chinese themselves, will not dwell on that, save to say:  ‘There are limitations of our model, but we are working on them.

However, our system is successful most of the time!’ They are quite proud defenders of the system!

However, that pride is not without ample justification or basis, in any case.

It is an undisputed fact that their model delivers economic prosperity for its citizens while propelling China towards  unquestionable global dominance:

Why the Chinese Model has not Benefited Africa

The reasons why the Chinese model has not improved Africa fortunes have been articulated throughout this treatise.

It is however, prudent to summarise them here.

First and foremost, there is a failure to understand that the model has both political and economic aspects, not just political ones like the one-party state.

In Africa, we have focussed on the political only.

Secondly, even with political, we have been copying the problematic bits only.

Most of the African countries have selfishly sought to adopt its worst aspects – the one-party state, human rights violation, state control of the economy and intolerance to dissent.

They ignored the model’s enabling tenets such as meritocracy, systematic and structured leadership renewal, such as the every 10 year renewal provision where the entire top leadership is replaced by new faces, particularly the president and premier.

We have neglected efficacious economic modelling and the anti-corruption thrust – where corrupt officials are summarily shot! I guess we did not find it desirable nor convenient to place ourselves before a firing squad!

Replication of the Chinese model on the continent has failed.

As already discussed, China is the number one trading partner to Africa, but the relationship has been largely detrimental to Africa.

How do the Chinese compare with the West when it comes to the continent?

Of course, we have already described the arrangement as parasitic and self-serving on the part of the Chinese.

The only difference with the West is in form and not impact.

In some way, the Chinese are worse because they posture as our historical friends, comrades in arms, fellow victims of imperialism, and then they shaft us at the first opportunity!

Conclusion: The Case for an African developmental model

Indeed, the Chinese political and economic model has worked for China and not benefited Africa.

The answer for the continent is not to copy the Chinese, Western, Scandinavian or Singaporean political and economic systems. We must learn from ourselves— our history, culture, values, precolonial legal systems, and indigenous knowledge systems. Furthermore, Africans must seek  to involve more of their scientists,  mathematicians,  computer scientists and engineers in political and economic leadership; strategic thinking and planning; and public policy formulation and  implementation.

We must create our own models. Yes, we must learn from everyone; China, the West, Scandinavia, India, Singapore and many other countries.

As Africans, we must digest and grasp the gist and import of the Chinese model.

We ought to put our thinking caps on and design our own unique socio-economic and political systems that address our specific challenges in pursuit of our dreams and aspirations.

Clearly, there are lessons from the Chinese success story.

More importantly, we must learn from ourselves – our history, culture, values, pre-colonial legal systems, and indigenous knowledge systems.

We must develop and create our own political and economic models.

The lessons we pick up from other countries’ models must be linked to our own novel ideas and ingenious strategic frameworks, the result of which we then apply within the African context.

Whatever we produce as a model must have unique ‘African characteristics’ to borrow a Chinese phrase.

Imagining that there is an ideal system out there for us to just cut and paste is delusional.

Even if we were to adopt the Chinese system lock stock and barrel, that would not work because that model only works in a unique Chinese cultural and historical context.

Fresh thinking is required, even in nomenclature.

The naming of our own models must not make any reference to capitalism or socialism.

Surely, we can also create new, untainted names. Of course, the content of our African developmental models will be the critical matter.

Cutting and pasting will not cut it. Our work is cut out for us.

  • This is an  excerpt from Arthur Mutambara’s upcoming book: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: Volume 3