Sunday, 25 September 2022

In Governance

The Chinese Political and Economic Model: Why it has worked for China and not benefited Africa

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.

Introduction: Poverty and Dearth of Analysis

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, African 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 coming to do 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, 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 be transplanted into a simplistic dictum that the Chinese model does not work. No. The Chinese model has worked exceptionally well for China. Period. Whether it has helped Africa or will help Africa is a different conversation.

The Chinese Political and Economic Model: Why it has worked for China and not benefited Africa (article 1 of 4), is an extended excerpt from Prof. Arthur G.O. Mutambara’s book “In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream: Volume 3” published mid-2021.

Cabanga Media Group publishes of thoughtful economic and business commentary magazines and online media, in several African markets, that include South Africa, Botswana, East Africa Community, Ethiopia, Egypt, Nigeria, and Zambia.