By Arthur G O Mutambara
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 on 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 systems 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 systems.
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’s failure 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 Africa is disorganised, does not put together a capable technocratic team selected on merit, it 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 Africans end 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 malfeasance — the Chinese mischief.
More significantly, why are we approaching China as small, fragmented States without bargaining power? We must not engage 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 African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). 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 to 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.
Strengths of the Chinese model
The Chinese model (socio-economic and political system) is about leadership — visionary, strategic, technocratic and meritocratic leadership. It is driven by a long-term shared national vision, strategic thinking, strategic planning, effective implementation, monitoring and evaluation. All this is anchored by a hard work ethic, national cohesion, profound self-belief, efficient use of national resources and zero tolerance to corruption. Chinese values, history, traditions and philosophy inform and inspire the model. The socio-economic and political system is characterised by an unrelenting commitment to, and effective deployment of high technology and advanced science as the drivers of economic development and transformation. The Chinese have eagerly and systematically embraced and leveraged the fourth industrial revolution.
Some of 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 Chinese model with its Western equivalents. He argues that although the Chinese model is not perfect, it is 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 meritocratic system 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 on 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 on 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 as weak as (former US Presidents) 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 democratic model has its own weaknesses. It has been described as “the least bad option”, which allows for the exit of incompetent and content-free leaders like Trump and Bush. Nevertheless, why does the system even allow the ascendency of such ignoramuses and buffoons to the presidency? The Chinese are not impressed by that flaw in the Western model.
The Chinese system 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! They are placed before a firing squad in public glare so that the anti-corruption message is unequivocal and ingrained in the population. None of the African leaders who have tried to copy the Chinese model uncreatively have executed any of their colleagues for corruption. In fact, they prosecute and incarcerate those who fight 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 leaders. A brief review of recent key Chinese leaders’ qualifications shows a 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 eleven 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 when our efforts to replicate the Chinese model 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, the late former President Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe) was in power for 37 years, Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia, 27 years), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania, 21 years) and Muamar Gaddafi (Libya, 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 the 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 in terms of GDP 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 strategic 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 system 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’s biggest economy in 2027. In March 2021, experts in the United States predict that China will be the world’s AI superpower ahead of the United States in AI innovations and other 4IR technologies.
China has produced global business giants that appear in, and are slowly dominating the world’s top 10 lists by any category, be it market capitalisation, annual revenue or profitability. These companies include Alibaba, Tencent, Sinopec Group, State Grid, China National Petroleum, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).
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. Chinese developed and manufactured Sinopharm and Sinovac have proven to be safer and more efficacious than vaccines produced by Western competitors.
If the preceding articulated Chinese achievements are not evidence of a successful political and economic model, then success has no definition. It becomes a meaningless notion. 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 infrastructural projects. It is all daunting. Shanghai makes New York look like the small City of 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 Hydropower Plant with an installed capacity of 22,5GW. This is the largest hydropower plant in the world. Construction started in 1994, and the project was completed in 2012 at a cost of US$32 billion. The Chinese put it together without the IMF 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 a phenomenal socio-economic impact. It represents the emphatic and distinguished commitment by the Chinese to infrastructure.
Indeed, infrastructure is the economy. The economy is infrastructure.
For comparison, Grand Inga Hydropower Project would be 40 GW and overtake Three Gorge as the largest in the world, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Hydropower Plant, currently under construction, is 6,35GW. Also, Itaipu Hydropower Plant in Brazil and Paraguay is 14GW installed capacity, another Chinese plant — Xiluodu Hydropower Plant is 13,86 GW installed capacity, and our own Kariba Hydropower Plant has installed capacity of 1,626GW.
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 on 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.
In 2020, China added 71,6GW of wind power generation capacity to reach an installed (wind) capacity of 281GW. Both China’s installed (wind) capacity and new (wind) capacity in 2020 are the largest in the world by a significant margin. The second-placed competitor, the United States, added 14GW in 2020 and has an installed (wind) capacity of 118GW. Indeed, renewable energy is at the centre of China’s economic growth strategy.
In terms of total (non-renewable and renewable) installed capacity, the entire African continent is at a measly 168GW, whereas China showcases a staggering 2 200GW. In just one year, China was able to add wind power generation capacity equivalent to 43% of Africa’s total generation capacity. In 2021 alone, China will increase its total installed capacity by 169 GW, which is 100% of our total installed capacity as Africans. Shame on us.
Clearly, infrastructure, in particular energy, is a vital driver of the Chinese model.
In terms of construction, this is the most visible display of China’s meteoric economic development — the roads, highways, railway systems, bridges, dams and brand new cities. China used more concrete in the first 16 years of the 21st century than the United States did in the entire 20th century. Wow!
Indeed, this is industrial expansion on steroids. Thanks to the efficacious Chinese model.
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 manifestations 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 weakness of the Chinese model include conflation of the State and party, egregious and predatory lending in Africa (advantageous to the Chinese but detrimental to the Africans), abuse of human rights, and disrespect for civil liberties and political rights.
Oh yes, they are some objectionable matters with respect to 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 African 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 focused on the political only. Secondly, even with the 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 10-year renewal provision where the entire top leadership is replaced by new faces, particularly the president and the 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 miserably failed.
As already discussed, China is the number one trading partner of 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 ways, 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!
Way forward: The case for an African developmental model
Indeed, the Chinese political and economic models have worked for China and not benefited Africa. The answer for the continent and its countries is not to copy the Chinese, Western, Scandinavian or Singaporean political and economic systems. 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. The system’s strengths, ingredients and drivers as articulated in this treatise must constitute a source of inspiration to us as we fashion our own models in our different African countries. 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.
Evidently, 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. 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.
More significantly, we must embrace the 4IR and put high technology and advanced science at the centre of our models. We ought to understand that scale — a population of 1,4 billion people, a GDP of US $14,3 trillion and a vast resource base — are key drivers of the Chinese model. Hence, as we work on our national models, a key and common component should be regional and continental integration leading to the United States of Africa — one country with a population of 1,3 billion people, an extensive resource base and a collective GDP of US$2,5 trillion. Only then can we unlock the kind of massive achievements that the Chinese have enjoyed.
With respect to our trade and business partnerships with China, we must be proactive instead of reactive. We must not merely respond or react to China’s ambitions. Africa must have its own strategy towards China, independently crafted by Africans, driven by what we want, and not unduly influenced by Chinese aspirations. As already explained, we must not engage China as individual countries but as one continental economic bloc through the AU for now and the United States of Africa in the future. There should be no bilateral deals between any individual African country and China. Not a single one!
Only when operating as one united political and economic entity can Africa unlock economic value from commercial relationships with China. We can trade and partner better with them, leverage on their lessons more effectively, and prosper together with them if we engage them as one united continent, not fragmented, non-viable and dysfunctional States.
Competent and technocratic African teams must be established to engage with the Chinese investors to avoid predatory lending and egregious deals. In terms of our raw materials, we must insist on beneficiation and value addition on the continent. No raw minerals must leave the continent for China. Not an ounce! We must understand that it is not in China’s interest or that of wealthy Western countries to promote beneficiation in Africa. Their preference is for Africa to produce and sell raw materials to them while selling refined and value-added goods to Africa. We are on our own on this industrialisation agenda.
The raw material critical mass required for beneficiation is achievable only if we work in regional value-addition industrial clusters and engage China through these. For example, we can define a diamond cluster (Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)), a platinum cluster (Zimbabwe and South Africa), a cocoa cluster (Ghana, Ivory Coast and Guinea), and a petroleum cluster (Nigeria, Algeria and Senegal). With the scale, critical mass and consensus achieved in these clusters, value-addition and beneficiation will be commercially viable on the African continent. In fact, we will then control prices of these commodities while moving up the value chain. Thus, we can achieve industrialisation with or without the blessing or involvement of China or the wealthy Western countries. If they so desire, they will participate in beneficiation on the continent on our terms. That is what we want.
When all is said and done, we should be our own economic emancipators. We must design and create our own developmental models as united Africans from Cape to Cairo. We must radically rethink and proactively reorganise our geostrategic partnership with China. 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 political and economic model must have unique “African characteristics” to paraphrase a Chinese concept.
Imagining that there is an ideal system out there for us just to copy 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. More importantly, execution, execution and more execution — the African must study, master and practise doctrine of implementation science.
- Arthur Mutambara is former Deputy Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. He writes in his personal capacity.