20 November 2012

Africa: China's Leadership Transition and Africa


The 18th Congress of China's Communist Party ended last Thursday with the election of new leaders for the country. The smooth transition contrasts with the cacophony of divisive messages and hate-filled debate that characterise elections in the United States, particularly in the last one in which President Barack Obama won a second term.

China's new party leadership team is headed by Xi Jinpin, who will officially take over from Hu Jintao as president next year.

The timing of the changes in the leadership of the two countries is of special importance for their relations with Africa. While Obama's re-election represents the defeat of politics that sees government as a friend of the rich, China's expresses the confirmation of a tradition that sees government as a tool for achieving virtue by leaders. From the late 1970s onwards, Africa experienced economic and social dislocations from implementers of the "Washington Consensus", whose destructive effects prepared Africa for warmly welcoming China's friendlier foreign investment policies. China has thus provided alternative and attractive models of development and economic diplomacy.

In concrete terms, China has invested in building rail lines and roads within and across borders; power-generating plants, and airports. Such capital intensive projects had habitually been either ignored and actively discouraged or used as a cover for luring Africa into debt traps.

China has shown a hunger for excavating and hauling Africa's raw materials in a manner European colonialist governments and business see as familiar. This should remind African countries to insist on a dialogue with China's new leaders that emphasises the growth of Africa's skilled labour force and manufacturing sectors within the continent.

Xi has named corruption and slow bureaucratic operations as enemies to be fought. The same commitment must be practised by Chinese firms doing business in Africa. Likewise, the swift punishment meted to offences in China (such as illegal mining practices which cause fatal accidents), must be applied to Chinese companies engaged in mining operations in Africa. Inhuman treatment of workers and dangerous working conditions must be made wholesome. In this regard, active cooperation with African governments would be a welcome transfer of social technology in the area of good economic governance.

China's new leaders have been mandated to promote innovation for driving the economy; taking material and intellectual capital to rural farmers in order to boost their incomes; promote access to social security by funding health care, education, housing and retirement benefits; regulating the income gap between the rich and the poor, and protecting the environment. China's vigorous dialogue with Africa's leaders over these values should not be seen as interference in the internal affairs of African countries.

There has been a chorus in leading American and European media urging China to break up its state-owned enterprises in favour of privately owned small and medium scale enterprises. This seems to be a recipe for weakening China's economic foundation, planning and systematic promotion of communitarian development. Debt-weakened African governments were dragged into "privatizing" (or opening their economic assets to purchase by former colonial powers), and thereby losing control of the direction of their economies. African governments must meet and work out how to benefit from China's formula for using state-ownership to protect their economic strength at a time when Europe is fighting its middle class and America's middle class have gritted their teeth and fought back under President Obama's flag for building a new USA in which their own survival and progress gets priority.

Also, China's new focus on developing its internal market is a strategy worth sharing with Africa's policymakers.

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