Friday, December 14, 2012

What is the Chinese model of development?

Some think that China is helping build Africa's development capacities, others think that China's involvement in Africa is less than beneficial. Still, everyone can agree that China is affecting African countries, one way or another. And yet, what is the end-game of Sino-African relations? What will they look like in a decade, or five? China and the Asian Tigers all built their economies from levels comparably lower than independence-era Africa, and peoples in Africa were quite interested in the implications for countries under the domination of Europeans to develop so rapidly. Can Chinese relations with African countries turn Africa into another China? Will Botswana or Rwanda turn into another Guangzhou by manufacturing or exporting things to Guangzhou itself?

Sino-Africa scholar Deborah Brautigam argues that Africa cannot develop like China:

There isn't any country in Africa that has the same kind of leadership as China where there is such a focus on development....There might have been a few places that have come close such as Ethiopia under Meles Zenawi (prime minister until his death in August) and also currently Rwanda, but very few....There are 54 countries in Africa so you can't really say there is one model for Africa,...But it is true there is more focus on manufacturing in Africa. There are a number of countries that have also concentrated on manufacturing such as Mauritius, South Africa, Kenya as well as Tunisia and Egypt and others that are not naturally resource-rich. For some parts of the continent, the manufacturing model is already working.
Abdi Ismail Samatar, a prominent researcher of African political development, emphasizes self-reliance as an element of true development in his recent op-ed. Relying on commodity exports (a massive generalization of African economies, but a useful one) while importing the tools and ideas of others will do those countries no good in the long run: 
A number of African scholars have recently argued that China is working with African countries to advance the continent's development, while the United States is deeply engaged in security and terror issues in Africa... Although there is an element of truth in this thesis, particularly with regard to the American involvement in Africa, I beg to differ with the claim that China's interventions are significantly advancing Africa's capacity to develop....The critical question is: What the Asian or PRC leadership did differently than Africans to advance their economies? For starters, the younger Asian Tigers had a model of industrial development in Japan. East Asians and PRC understood that without a strong industrial base they could not develop.Consequently, their industrial strategy was qualitatively different than any other Third World government through the discipline their state exercised. State companies took the lead and this approach blossomed in China after the post-Mao reform in the late 1970. It is the emergence of state-directed industrial development that has given Asia or China an incredible competitive advantage in so many fields....Beneath the media glare that surrounded the inaugural ceremony of the AU ceremony, the Chinese guest must have minimally felt pity for his hosts whose incompetence created the opportunity for such gift giving. In the colonial era, Africans were denied the opportunity to develop their skills and build their enterprises.For instance, early last century, King Khama of Bechuanaland (today's Botswana) established a state company to assist his people compete with South Africa's white businesses in his territory. But the British authorities forced Khama to liquidate his enterprise and this damaged the future Republic of Botswana.More recently, African governments have failed to learn from their history and those of others by squandering opportunities to capacitate their people so they can design and construct their own domes.The African people's disability is unmistakably exemplified by the AU building and that is why it is Africa's "Dome of Shame". To challenge this history, the response of young Africans must be: never again will others build things for us and steal our precious natural resources and markets."
One wonders if, ultimately, the perception that African countries are relying on "the Chinese" (The quote is there to signify that the term is more complicated than its use implies) to build necessary infrastructure is really the way to go.


  1. Winslow,thanks for post. Many people believe that the West was developed using labor from other countries, while the Asian Tigers and China are using local labor to industrialize.
    China, so far, for most of the projects being undertaken in Africa, is using a more hands-on approach than other foreign investors and donors, by hiring thousands of Chinese nationals to do the work, especially the technical aspects. Many Africans have applauded this model in part because projects (infrastructure and real estate especially) are completed in a short time and without any side complaining of mismanaged funds. That said, most people are not satisfied by what they view as lack of long-term interest on the part of the Chinese investors to train Africans in the more technical areas to enable the later to become experts which in turn would mean less need to import Chinese labor.
    The Chinese may be justified in not wanting to transfer knowledge partly because as Karl Max said "teach a man how to fish, you ruin a wonderful business opportunity". In addition, having served as a source of cheap labor aka export hub for large multinationals from the West that led to phenomenal growth of the last two or so decades, which propelled China to the global stage, the country is well aware of competitive advantages gained especially expertise from these conglomerates. It is little wonder that today, China's patents have surpassed the USA's , her biggest export/outsource market!

  2. Rachel,

    Thank you so much for your comment! I more or less agree with everything you said: there are a lot of Chinese projects that are done efficiently, and the Chinese have no incentive to train Africans to work or run such projects. Indeed, there is a history of Chinese projects being constructed and run by the Chinese in Africa that, when handed over to the host country, breaks down (Deborah Brautigam outlines that history quite well in The Dragon's Gift). Also, it is incumbent upon African governments to stand up for their own peoples. When contracts and licenses are negotiated, there is nothing stopping them for asking more in the ways of technical assistance or local labor.

    1. Winslow, welcome! Almost every sector in Africa is in dire need of an upgrade, renovation, or indeed a start especially infrastructure which is still non-existent/poor in many countries. Given the fierce competition to win business deals/investments China is using speedy execution as a competitive advantage. And herein lies the tricky situation for Africans whose work ethics is different from the Chinese - negotiating labor related issues beyond minimum wage and number of hours worked, may not be fiseable. That said, African governments and private sector need to be more proactive in negotiations.