Around the world, opinion is divided on China’s increasing power and what it portends for the international community. While Beijing has received mixed feelings in much of Europe and in its neighborhood, according to Pew Research Centre’s December 2019 global attitude survey, emerging markets in Latin America and Africa have favourable view of the Asian economic giant.
A number of factors account for the positive perceptions of China in places like Africa. Top on the list is Beijing’s most comprehensive and far-reaching poverty reduction record in human history. In the 1980s, China was home to the largest population living in extreme poverty. In just under three decades, the country has turnaround its economic fortunes – lifting millions out of poverty. This year, China is primed to shove away the last shackles of poverty and leap into a moderately prosperous society.
African countries have watched China transition from a net recipient of aid, some of which came from the continent; to an economic behemoth – blazing a different path of political, social and economic organizing. The continent, on the other hand, became home to the largest band of humanity living in poverty. 100 million more Africans live in extreme poverty today, compared to the 1990s, a situation that has only worsened in the wake of the global health crisis.
In the last two decades, China has intensified its cooperation with Africa, beginning with the founding of Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in the year 2000. In 2009, Beijing displaced the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. China has equally ramped up investments and development assistance to the continent in a bid to hoist Africa’s productive sectors for accelerated economic growth.
The China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University reports that China has so far advanced 1077 loan facilities amounting to US$ 147 billion, to different African countries. In terms of sectors, top gainers include transport (44.2 billion), power (37 billion), mining (18.6 billion) and communication (9.3 billion).
The China brand has been well interwoven into Africa’s development fabric. Furthermore, Beijing’s policy of non-interference in domestic affairs of African states has struck a special cord with Africa’s ruling elite.
Irrespective of type, governments generally function to deliver similar services to the people. Beijing has had relative success in providing wide ranging public goods such as security, healthcare, education, transport systems, and industrial value chains.
Beyond the allure of Chinese development assistance and investments in the continent, there are other key learning points that Africa could leverage in the coming decades to fulfill the aspirations outlined in Africa Agenda 2063.
First is people-centered policy making. Taking the cue from its revolution-ridden past, China has firmly placed the interest of the largest component of the population at the core of its policy deliberations and crafting. Few states in the world clearly outline their development plans and conscientiously proceed to implement them like China’s short and long term agendas. In Africa, development programmes are often divorced from knowledge and spawned on political expediency instead of long term returns. This has led to a plethora of poorly performing projects and heavy economic toll on the population.
Second is meritocracy. China has proven that it helps to weave together a knowledge-based bureaucracy in managing the affairs of a country. It reflects on the kinds of policies the government has developed. One of the key requirements for the Chinese Communist Party membership, for example, is academic excellence. Such a scenario creates a large talent pool to help fashion development projects; and ensure efficient and sustainable implementation.
Third is unflagging commitment to the rule of law. Chinese understand the basic laws governing their country and faithfully seek to abide by the law. Africa faces a major problem in managing the scourge of corruption in the public sector. Conservative estimates of US$ 50 billion slip out of the continent through illicit financial flows, annually. To stem graft in Africa, mutually reinforcing systems like those in China are needed. China has since 2012, charged and jailed over a million people including high ranking party and military officials.
Finally, Chinese state competence has enabled the country to carefully learn from the experiences of other countries; borrowing and domesticating what has worked; while eschewing the pitfalls. This has been the case in soaring industrial base, and marketization. African countries have much to learn from China, to achieve their domestic aspirations, without necessarily becoming another China.
The writer is a scholar of international relations.