Africa can reap dividends by learning keenly from China

A Kenyan youth working with China Road and Bridges tightens metals that will form Wangige underpass pillars under construction in Kiambu County. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Ancient African folk wisdom is usually heavy on anthropomorphism and may not be very tech-savvy. Still, it sometimes captures contemporary realities with an uncanny, almost prophetic, accuracy. Take for instance the popular children's story about Hyena and Hare, those fair-weather friends who one day, in an attempt to stamp their masculine authority, unadvisedly agree to teach their wives resounding lessons through severe, overnight flogging.

The foolish Hyena, according to the story, proceeds to butcher his spouse of many years deceived by false drum-beats in his friend's homestead, while Hare the drummer treats his wife to a massive, romantic shopping spree the next day!

On the international front, a similar drama whose main actors are the Russian 'Bear' and Chinese 'Dragon' has been unfolding. Obviously, China, unlike Hare, did not trick Russia into brutally invading Ukraine (while itself only loudly rattling sabres at Taiwan, the supposed run-away province it vows to one day "retake by force"). Yet, the caution with which China has navigated the treacherous matters in its backyard is admirable, compared with Putin's belligerent and brutal invasion of a much smaller and harmless neighbour.

Consequently, while Russia has attracted near-unanimous isolation and severe fiscal punishment from the international community, China's circumspection has guaranteed lucrative trade engagements with the rest of the world. Its economy had steadily burgeoned to 25 per cent of the global total and is rated by both the World Bank and the IMF as the world's largest in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). It is projected to grow by 5.5 per cent in 2023.

Even billionaire Elon Musk - whose utterances always command attention - recently admitted that China's economy could soon overtake that of the United States by a factor of 3. Perhaps civilisation is finally headed back to the East where it all began. How else could one explain the unravelling of Britain, a formerly unassailable entity on whose far-flung outposts 'the sun never set', into an unrecognisable European pariah, and an unenviable 'empire' of unending political gigs right before our eyes!

After experimenting with a spectrum of social-political and economic formations including Soviet-style communism, Ujamaa, and Muammar Gaddafi's Jamahiriya, those African countries daring enough to defy former colonial masters and, from the agora, announce their newfound oriental affiliation, might yet reap the best dividends from their latest action.

Affiliation with the Chinese has provided developing countries with an alternative development financing strategy - maybe the closest thing yet to the ideal of surviving without aid. Debts owed by African countries have sometimes been waived. In embracing China, Africa has in a sense found an opportunity to escape that grievous 'White man's Burden' of aid-critic William Easterly.

The attitude of traditional donors such as the UK and US towards their financial dependants has been unfailingly condescending (remember the "vomiting all over our shoes" metaphorical insult by one British envoy?) and accompanied by painful preconditions tailored solely for the selfish gain of London and Washington. Sino-African cooperation on the other hand has often proved to be symbiotic and fairly dignified.

China gives everybody just what they want. It has built massive infrastructure and countless schools in Africa, while constructing endless miles of railroads in resource-rich South American countries such as Brazil and Chile, that way creating many jobs in the emerging markets. Even neigbouring Uganda is reportedly on the verge of acquiring nuclear reactors in partnership with the China National Nuclear Corporation!

Some 'Sino-philic' African countries such as Kenya and Zambia have also been able to escape the reviled World Bank's 'low-income' classification, ascending to the lower middle-income ranks, while Malawi and others who eschewed China's incursion continue to contend with slow development and poor infrastructure.

All said, African nations must not succumb to the temptation of viewing China merely as an international super-ATM. Who knows? True to all big powers metamorphotic behaviour, 'the Dragon' might at some point shed its benevolent facade and come for our jugular.

Instead, they should seek to emulate its successful developmental model. Actions such as proactive rural industrialisation, setting up of Township and Village enterprises (TVAs), training efficient workforce and spreading export footprints to reach as many partners as possible (China currently trades with 250 countries), besides developing STEM education to prepare citizens for tech, are a good starting point.

For the longest time, Africa has been immensely disadvantaged in international trade because of focusing mainly on exporting primary instead of processed products. The annoying charade of exporting wood, coffee and cocoa beans, and then importing cappuccino, hot chocolate and toothpicks should be stopped. After all, China did it! As recently as in1978, her own exports constituted half raw materials and half-finished products. Today, the Chinese export less than 5 per cent of raw products and over 95 per cent of finished goods.

Finally, and on a lighter note, China, like the wise Hare, must explore a less indignant way of engaging Taiwan, and perhaps surprise the world some day by giving her "the romantic shopping outing of her life", and not the kind of dreadful 'flogging' Russia has dished to Ukraine!