China has achieved enormous economic success since the Chinese Communist Party rose to power on 1 October 1949. But that success has come at a high price, some of which defies belief, and proffers valuable lessons for Africa, writes Cameron Duodu.
Many schools of thoughts are thrown around as people seek to understand China’s foray into and influence upon Africa. Lessons from China’s own historic past are often sidelined, yet are crucial to the current China-Africa discourse.
To begin with, it is hard to refute that the seeds of China’s achievements were sown during the civil war that installed the People’s Republic of China in Beijing. The civil war was fought by the Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army (the PLA, which is also known as The Red Army) against the Kuomintang (often translated as the Chinese Nationalist Party) regime, led by General Chiang Kai-Shek, which had been ruling China from 1928 until the Red Army won the Chinese civil war and drove the Kuomintang to the island of Taiwan in 1949.
The civil war lasted for over 21 years, with an intermittent period (just before and after the Second World War) during which the two antagonist sides came together to form a patriotic front whose objective was to rescue China from Japanese rule.
One thing the alliance with the Kuomintang demonstrated was that although the Chinese Communist Party, under its Chairman, Mao Zedong was as ideologically dogmatic as any other Communist Party, it was nevertheless flexible enough to adapt when it concluded that the interests of the people of China demanded that it should act with pragmatism.
The Party’s ability to change direction and the Chinese people’s ability to bear unimaginable hardships enabled China to accomplish some of the heroic tasks that have propelled the country into becoming the economic heavyweight it is today, to which Africa is increasingly looking for all-weather support.
It may, in fact, be said that the Chinese revolution stands distinctly apart from many things that have happened in the rest of the world. It occurred over 21 blood-soaked years, during which the Communist Party had to fight its way, almost literally, inch by inch, over some of the most rugged terrain on earth: mountains, mighty rivers, gorges, valleys, you name it. In one of the more romanticised episodes in the civil war, “The Long March” (for instance), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army covered a distance of 6,000 miles on foot in 1934-36! It is estimated that the army lost nine-tenths of its military strength through starvation, disease and enemy bullets, during that “Long March”.
It was during the “Long March” that the People’s Army learnt iron discipline and ideological steadfastness. It managed to create a fraternity between the rural population and urban workers. Normally, armies fighting in the countryside tend to rob, cheat and bully the peasants. But Mao, who had become a revolutionary fighter whilst working at Peking University, came to admire the peasants of his country and wrote flatteringly about them in numerous poems, many of which were based on folk wisdom as enunciated by the peasantry. So, by the time the People’s Army had succeeded in reaching northern China from its original bases in the south-east, it had been forged in a steel mill whose furnaces espoused a doctrine that has been followed by most successful revolutionary movements ever since, namely, that the revolutionary fighter engaged in a guerrilla campaign must move among the people “like fish in water”.
The Little Red Book
Mao’s sayings became the guiding principle from which were adapted the motto of many a military assault on the enemy. In later years, some of the Maoist sayings were put together in “The Little Red Book”, which every Chinese was expected to recite by heart.
But no movement can afford to stand still, and when economic conditions convinced Mao’s successors (following his death in 1976) to pay more attention to the production of food and consumer goods to satisfy the needs of their teeming population, they adopted capitalist production methods, while politically, they ran the country largely as a centralised unit based on the principles of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the Communist Party maintained a monopoly over the nation’s political strings. This created a major contradiction in Chinese society.
But whatever the difficulties – and indeed absurdities – to be discerned from the current endeavours of the Chinese people, no one can deny that economically, the efforts have been most fruitful.
Already, China is second only to the United States in the size of both its nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and just ahead of it by purchasing power parity (PPP), which takes into account relative prices in the two countries. In addition, China holds $1.3 trillion of US treasury bonds.
Simultaneously, China is the world’s largest holder of foreign currency reserves with more than $3.8 trillion. Japan, which is next in line, does not even have one-half of China’s holdings, with around $1.3 trillion. Saudi Arabia has the third most with over $700 billion. In other words, the world superpowers should mind the gap between their actions towards China and the economic muscle it is toning up – silently – inside the vaults of its central bank.
In addition to working tirelessly to build up its economic clout, China has shown remarkable prescience in how to use its economic power creatively. Long before it was in need of raw materials on a vast scale from Africa to feed its industries, China had been using economic development to create “solidarity” between itself and some African nations.
The best example of this is the Tazara Railway (see pages 24-25) – which China built in the early 1970s, that is, long before Western countries began, somewhat hypocritically, to express concern about the escalating growth of China’s trade with Africa.
When I heard about the amazing achievement of China building Tazara to help Zambia reroute its trade following sanctions on its neighbour Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) over its Unilateral Declaration of Independence, I was reminded of what Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai had told a group of African writers, of whom I was a member, in a meeting we had with him in his office in Beijing, in November 1958.
He told us that the Chinese people were used to thinking not in terms of a few years, “decades or even centuries”, but in terms of “thousands of years”. Who would have thought that China, which in 1958 was urging its citizens across the country to build clay furnaces to smelt pig-iron for industrial purposes, would, less than 20 years later, be able to build a 1160-mile-long railway, so far away from its territory?
In May 2014, the 50-year anniversary of Zhou Enlai’s first visit to ten countries in Africa, the current Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, embarked on a four-nation tour to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya. The visit was aimed at unleashing “the great potential for the two sides” for mutually beneficial cooperation, in various fields. Commenting on the visit, Xinhua said: “Over the past half- century, China has not only unswervingly developed a relationship of cooperation with African nations, but also continued to inject fresh contents and vitality into bilateral relations.”
Xinhua added: “The establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) has particularly made significant contributions to consolidating the two sides’ traditional friendship, deepening their strategic mutual trust, and pushing forward pragmatic cooperation in various areas. Africa has become increasingly important for China’s foreign policy, and both sides have continuously created mutually beneficial and win-win prospects.”
In Abuja, Premier Li attended the 2014 World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa and delivered a speech on China-Africa common development, China’s bid to promote Africa’s inclusive development, and international cooperation with Africa. In Ethiopia, Premier Li attended the completion ceremony of a highway constructed by Chinese corporations, visited an industrial park, and held a seminar with businessmen from China and African countries. China and Africa were scheduled to sign nearly 60 deals, covering cooperation in areas such as trade, health, culture, agriculture and personnel training, during the Premier’s visit to Africa.
Chinese stumbling blocks
But indications from some African countries suggest that unless China rigorously regulates the activities of some of its companies and nationals that operate in Africa, they will create stumbling blocks for Sino-African cooperation. For instance, some poultry farmers in Zambia have complained, in the past, that Chinese poultry farmers have been impinging on their markets, while in Senegal, shopkeepers sometimes claim that Chinese traders make the prices charged for imported goods by local traders “uncompetitive”. There have also been growing concerns throughout Africa that the Chinese are driving locals out of business and it is through such complaints that xenophobia has built up, which means that the Chinese government would be well-advised to keep an eye on what its nationals are up to abroad.
In Ghana, some Chinese gold-diggers have teamed up with locals, known as galamsey operators, to dig for alluvial gold in many of Ghana’s most important rivers. Many of the rivers have been ruthlessly dredged and left to die, filled with mud and algae, depriving the local inhabitants of good, drinking water, and killing the fish that provides their diet with much-needed protein.
Ghanaian criminals were carrying out illegal digging before the Chinese joined them, but the arrival of the Chinese has turned what used to be small-time illegal gold digging into an industrial operation carried out with machines imported from China. The devastation wrought on the rivers, the surrounding environments, and those who depend on them is unbelievable to see.
But according to local Ghanaian media reports, the government is doing little to stop the devastating activities because there is a lot at stake – diplomatically and financially.
“Diplomatic pressure from the Chinese government has held back [the Ghana] government’s efforts to stop the galamsey menace”, Colonel Robert Nyankah, Chairman of the National Security Committee on Lands and Natural Resources told the local press recently and bemoaned how the gains made by the inter-ministerial task-force against illegal mining seem to be eroding as many of those arrested – mostly Chinese – and deported in connection with illegal mining, are back in the country.
“China is facilitating the release of a $3 billion Master Agreement loan facility to the government of Ghana to boost infrastructural development including construction of the eastern corridor road networks,” said Colonel Nyankah – a veiled reference that this could be hampering efforts to curtail the illegal mining.
The situation on the ground in Ghana is ugly. Unless the Chinese government takes drastic steps to stop its nationals engaging in this galamsey criminality, all the goodwill that has been built up over the years with the people of Ghana will be destroyed.
The current government may be too timid to press the Chinese to act, but, of course, no government lasts forever. Only peoples do, and they have long memories.