Do Africa’s emerging nations know the secret of China’s economic miracle?

As much of the world focused on the military hardware paraded by Beijing on October 1 to mark 70 years of Communist Party rule, for some African nations the celebrations perhaps also provided a glimpse of the success they might one day achieve – by following China’s political and economic models.

After two decades of rapid growth in two-way trade – to US$204 billion in 2018 – China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, according to figures from Beijing.

The pair have also become increasingly linked through Beijing’s ambitious trade and infrastructure development plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which has led to the construction of numerous China-funded projects, like motorways, power dams and railways, across the African continent.

But China’s influence goes far beyond economics. For decades it has had close ties to political groups that were involved in African nations’ struggles for independence, like the National Liberation Front of Angola and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, which is now the ruling party in the southern nation.

Professor Martin Rupiya, head of innovation and training at the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes in Durban, South Africa, said that one of the reasons for those links was that China regarded itself as a former third world and colonised nation.

“China had strong links to Angola, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and other African states that had to go through liberation in achieve statehood,” he said.

David Shinn, an American diplomat and adjunct professor of International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said that party-to-party relations between African nations and China began in the 1950s and 1960s.

Beijing has also nurtured relations with the African National Congress, which has ruled South Africa since 1990, though Shin said he found that link “somewhat surprising” given that the African country “is relatively democratic and following a different economic model to the one in China”.

According to Gregg Brazinsky, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University in the US capital, the foundations for China’s relations with Africa were built during the cold war, when the vast continent was seen as a battleground between East and West, and after a falling-out between Moscow and Beijing that pushed the erstwhile Communist allies to the brink of war.

In his 2017 book, Winning the Third World, Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, Brazinsky said that China “believed in Africa’s revolutionary power potential and decided to support the countries in their national liberation”.

China’s Communist Party “sought to introduce Maoist doctrines on guerilla wars and supported those groups they deemed likely to emulate the Chinese experience”, he said.

Beijing went on to support revolutions in Angola, Zanzibar, Algeria, the Congo and several West African countries, upsetting both Washington and Moscow in the process.

But it was not until the 1970s that China was able to cement its political capital in Africa, with the development of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway.

Built between 1970 and 1975 with the help of a US$500 million interest-free loan from Beijing and 25,000 Chinese workers, the line runs 1,870km (1,160 miles) from the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam to the town of Kapiri Mposhi at the heart of Zambia’s copper mining region.

The long-standing relationship between China and Tanzania was highlighted last month when Chinese President Xi Jinping awarded a Friendship Medal – the highest honour Beijing can bestow on a foreigner – to the African nation’s former prime minister Dr Salim Ahmed Salim.

Now 77, Salim was just 27 when he took over as Tanzania’s ambassador to China, and in 1971, as his country’s permanent representative to the United Nations, he spearheaded the campaign to restore Beijing’s seat at the world body.

Shinn said that since its creation China’s Communist Party had established relations with 81 ruling and opposition political parties in Africa. African rulers were attracted by what they saw as the strength of the party’s top down model of government, he said.

Last year, the party held a two-day conference in Dar es Salaam to “deepen discussion and exchange on governance philosophy and development” that was attended by representatives of more than 40 political parties from 36 African countries.

One country that appears to have been influenced by China’s economic model is Ethiopia. Although multiparty democracy is practised in the country, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front have used Beijing-style state-controlled capitalism – like shielding key industries such as banking and telecommunications from external competition – to drive economic growth.

Another fan of the Chinese model is Namibian President Hage Geingob, who spoke to Xinhua last month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“Every time you go [to China] you see change … new buildings, new cities, new motorways everywhere you go,” he said.

Shinn said that although the Chinese Communist Party had been active in Africa – as it “represents the apex of power in China” – it was much more difficult to “identify African countries that have been influenced by Chinese ideology”.

What was evident was the huge investment Beijing had made across the continent through its belt and road plan, he said.

Rupiya said that while the relationship between China and Africa had sparked concerns about Beijing’s growing influence on the world stage it had also led to many countries and trading blocs re-evaluating their ties to the continent and how they can benefit from the economic opportunities it provides.

“Many nations, including India, Russia, Australia, Brazil and the European Union, now have ‘Africa policies’,” he said.

Source: South Asia Morning Post

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