Drawing Lessons for Africa from Accelerated Development in China

by Clayton H. Vhumbunu – SANF 15 no 55
The development of the People’s Republic of China has been a remarkable achievement in terms of its rapid pace and global impact, and the Chinese experience provides useful lessons for Africa at a time when several development models have been attempted since political decolonization began in the 1950s.

The current African model of development is the integration of many fragmented post-colonial polities into larger groupings, initially for purposes of economy of scale for trade, investment, and infrastructure development.

African countries have long acknowledged that with generally low per capita income, vast but untapped natural resources and single-commodity dependence, they cannot individually sustain growth and development within the global economy.

The continent has the largest mineral deposits in the world in terms of quantity and diversity and, despite being home to the largest number of least-developed countries, Africa the second fastest growing economy after Asia, growing at an average five percent per annum in recent years.

China went through similar development challenges to Africa following liberation in 1949, before embarking on economic reforms in 1978, and overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy one year ago in December 2014, now slowing its economic growth rate from over 10 percent in recent years to less than 7 percent to avoid overheating.

The Chinese development process was not guided by a single ideology, but is conceptually positioned between a liberal open economy and a centrally planned model, defined as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Indeed the instructive significance of the Chinese experience is not the choice of the development model, but rather the distinctive ability of the Chinese government to progressively identify constructive and positive aspects of the numerous theories and ideologies tried elsewhere and espouse them into policy plans that can be sustained country-wide over regions and provinces with different natural, economic, ecological, and socio-ethnic diversity.

This should be inspirational for Africa.

Of importance for African integration is how China managed to achieve successful policy coordination across the administrative regions, sustain the rapid upliftment of people out of poverty through agriculture and rural development, and put in place infrastructure connecting the regions and provinces.

It is also important to learn how China attracts and regulates foreign investment to support industrialization and technological development.

China and Africa share many similar historical, geographical and demographic characteristics. However, China is a unitary state with more than 1.35 billion people, while Africa is a continent with 1.1 billion population aspiring to unity and integration of the 54 fragmented economies to achieve economic development and ultimately reduce poverty.

Thus, development in China is coordinated while African development is fragmented.

Practical lessons can be drawn to accelerate the African integration agenda at national, regional and continental levels.

The African integration process should be informed by a thorough understanding of five main vectors of China’s development:

  • effective policy coordination and policy discipline;
  • rural development and poverty reduction;
  • infrastructural development;
  • the role of science and technology, education, and research and development; and
  • industrial development and export-oriented growth.

The essence here is not necessarily “what” China did (policy-specificity), but real focus should be on understanding “why” they did it and “how” it succeeded.

China’s success today is largely due to the nurturing of a visionary and dedicated leadership system; capable and competent bureaucracy; effective policy planning and coordination; and policy discipline.

Other factors include a commitment to agriculture and rural development for poverty reduction; strategic engagement and utilization of FDI for cross-sector development; infrastructure development; export-oriented industrialization; and active engagement of research-oriented think tanks in policy formulation and implementation.

China successfully administers development policy over a very expansive area, which is similar to Africa by historical, geographical and demographic comparison; but Africa grapples with coordinating regional integration processes with little economies that are weak and fragmented.

The accelerated socio-economic development in China is generally regarded to have its historical foundation in agricultural sector reforms, with poverty reduction an important goal of national development.

China’s sustained high economic growth and increased competitiveness in manufacturing was underpinned by the massive development of physical infrastructure. This presents useful lessons to Africa.

China’s success in providing quality infrastructure across the regions is due to three key factors: high-level government commitment; a state-guided and effectively decentralized planning and coordination framework; and, a robust framework for monitoring and evaluation.

The success of China’s industrial development can be attributed to gradual and strategic economic liberalization, an effective policy of foreign direct investment, incentives to both private and public sector enterprises, strategy of internationalization for State-owned enterprises, research and development, and dynamic state institutions for policy guidance.

Success is driven by: China’s strategic balance of protectionism and economic liberalism; China’s FDI policy and the regional development policy; and Export-oriented growth and foreign economic policy.

Education combined with research and development has consistently been central to China’s development policy, complemented by science and technology education and development interventions.

Deng Xiaoping, who initiated reforms in 1978, was very clear on this, saying,

“We should make every effort to develop education, even if it means slowing down our efforts in other sectors.”

This model was also adopted by Zimbabwe, and both countries now have adult literacy rates of well over 90 percent.

China adopted strategies to intensify research and development with the aim of ensuring to adopt and adapt new technological innovations to drive development.

Thank Tanks in China play a role in bridging the gap between knowledge and policy through extensive research and analytical work. The Chinese government’s engagement with Think Tanks is different from African countries where there is very little interaction.

Africa can borrow insightful lessons from the way that China acknowledges and incorporates the role of Think Tanks, maintaining a close working relationship and incorporating their findings into public policies and national development plans.

The Chinese development experience was a result of comprehensive reforms whose success depended on the effectiveness of the Chinese government, institutions and citizens to cooperatively plan and coordinate the cross-sectoral interventions throughout all the provinces and regions.

Lessons from the Chinese experience must be subjected to an in-depth analysis through a three-pronged incremental probing approach so as to determine their suitability, feasibility, practicability and acceptability within the African context.           The incremental probing would entail questioning why an intervention was made, how it was implemented, and what impact it had.

Of importance here is how China did it given the vast expansive nature of its polity and population, as well as regional diversity and autonomy.

Lessons for African integration must be based on African realities, just as Deng Xiaoping was very clear that lessons for China must be rooted in China:

“In carrying out our modernization programme, we must proceed from Chinese realities…we should learn from foreign countries and draw on their experience, but mechanical copying and application of foreign experience and models will get us nowhere.” sardc.net

This article from the respected regional think tank, the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) through its Institute for China-Africa Studies in Southern Africa, is the first in a series exploring the dimensions of China Africa relations in advance of the Summit of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to be held in South Africa in early December, and is adapted from a key paper title “Drawing Lessons for African Integration from Accelerated Development in China” that is available through the China portal on the SARDC website www.sardc.net Knowledge for Development

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