There is no Chinese template for development

Published in Uganda’s independent Daily Monitor on September 14.

It is good to see a debate about the extent to which Uganda can learn from China unfolding in the Daily Monitor’s pages. (Editorial, August 25; James Kahoza’s Comment, September 7). This reflects the growing, and essentially positive, feeling that Africa now has wider development opportunities than in recent decades.

But the Chinese would be the first to point out that their renaissance has derived from a determination to find their own path, through an experimental process of ‘feeling the stones to cross the stream.’ This has, certainly, involved learning from others: but selectively so, adapting lessons to the Chinese context, rather than importing ‘models’ wholesale.

Mr. Kahoza is right to underline the very different situations of China and Africa in the early 20th century.

China had comprised an extensive, technologically sophisticated, highly centralized and largely self-contained empire for more than 2,000 years. This was profoundly fractured by the aggression and territorial incursions of the West, Russia and Japan, bringing what the Chinese call ‘100 years of humiliation’ from which they are only now emerging, and also bringing a 100-year quest to find a form of modernisation with ‘Chinese characteristics.’

Liang Qichao, a reforming Qing dynasty intellectual who studied the West closely—even writing a biography of Oliver Cromwell, who he much admired—feared that a revolution in China would be followed by 70 years of chaos. That was remarkably prescient. Almost exactly 70 years, most of them chaotic, elapsed between the first, Republican revolution of 1911 and the coming of stable, ‘reform and opening’ government under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.

European colonialism in Africa was more absolute and even more destructive of previous ways of life, making the quest for modernisation with African characteristics intensely problematic. This can be seen today in continuing debate about what does and does not belong to African culture.

One sure thing is that it is not possible to rip up the past and start from scratch. Another is that you cannot simply take another people’s development trajectory and make it your own.

China’s reform era achievements certainly deserve serious study, but need to be understood in the Asian context. Some lessons are transferable, others likely not. For example, China’s huge investments in physical infrastructure were made possible by famously high household savings rates. Uganda cannot simply decide to imitate this. Uganda could, however, invest the returns on its natural resources, notably oil, in infrastructure development.

China courted Western investment mainly for the sake of industrial technology transfer, and proved a quick learner in joint-venture enterprises. This was not a live option for African countries because, aside from extracting resources, Western corporations saw little potential in Africa. However, newly ‘risen’ Asian investors now see Africa as presenting a wider range of opportunities. Growing trade and investment relationships with Asia create new opportunities for Africa too, including opportunities for technology transfer; but probably not on a pace and scale to enable the rapid proletarianisation of an overwhelmingly rural population—the shift from field to factory—that has been seen in China.

It also bears remarking that China’s reform era growth was in no small part premised on controlling runaway population growth. Harsh birth control policies, which Chinese people have endured without ever liking, are calculated to have prevented 400 million births in the last 30 years. It is highly unlikely that China could have risen as far or as fast if carrying those extra 400 million people. But it is also highly unlikely that African governments could impose, or that African people would buckle under, such draconian measures. (In China, they only ‘worked’ as part of an implicit trade-off: in return for imposing womb control, the state liberalised agriculture, allowing 700 million forcibly collectivised peasants to return to private farming.) There is no obvious lesson here for African countries, which need to find their own ways of balancing population with resources.

More generally, China has been pulled up by strong, capable, but by no means democratic government (with a fair dose of crony capitalism thrown in.) Interestingly, after a long while preaching market fundamentalism, Western development agencies now also emphasise the vital role of ‘good’ government. So East and West agree at last that government does matter!

But this is the beginning, not the end, of the discussion about what form of government suits African conditions. Unfortunately that debate is too dominated on the one hand by democracy ideologues, who insist on the universal application of institutions that evolved over hundreds of years in Europe and its settler colonies, and on the other by those who would seek to dress up petty tyranny as the ‘strong’ and stable government Africa needs.

So the real lesson for Africa here is to study the experience of Asia carefully but to keep a level head in drawing conclusions. The desire to emulate apparent success is understandable, but there is no universal template for development. Ugandans should, as Deng Xiaoping urged the Chinese people to do, ‘seek truth from facts,’ not just from aspirations, and chart their own course across the stream.

Kampala, September 9 2010