The myth of the 'China model' in Africa
By Jian Junbo
LONDON - China's growing influence in Africa following its increasingly active
economic activity on the continent has been a target of criticism from the
West, particularly the United States. Recently, such criticism seems to focus
on whether the so-called "China model" is applicable to Africa.
This happens at a time as more and more Chinese are arguing that there is no
such thing as a "China model" - a mix of authoritarianism and socialist market
economy that contrasts with the Washington Consensus. From this perspective,
the latest Western criticism may be off target.
During a visit to Zambia in June, United States Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton indirectly referred to China's presence in Africa as "new colonialism":
"We saw that during colonial times, it was easy to come in, take out natural
resources, pay off leaders and
leave. And when you leave, you don't leave much behind for the people who are
there. We don't want to see a new colonialism in Africa."
Asked whether China was a role model for Africa, Clinton answered: "In the
long-run, medium-run, even short-run, no I don't [think so]." 
The Wall Street Journal on September 2 reported:
... Some US officials
say the number of governments in Africa finding favor with China's path of
development gives Chinese firms an edge over US competitors and reflects
Beijing's strategic ambitions for the continent.
"It's quite clear that the model of state-led capitalism is being used as an
instrument of China's soft power," said Robert D Hormats, the US State
Department's Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. "It's part of a broad notion
that China's economic model is successful and can be used elsewhere." 
All this shows Washington's increasing concern with China's growing
competitiveness with the US in Africa. Accusing China of neo-colonialism in
Africa now is nothing new - as early as 2006, the British Foreign Office
compared China's activities in Africa to what the West had done some 150 years
before. But the criticism that China is trying to promote its own
political-economic "model" is something new.
Beijing has categorically refuted charges that a "China model" is planned for
Africa, but it will still likely become a label for China's engagement in the
continent and its would-be threat to the West.
Some African leaders have expressed a preference for Chinese-style development.
"China's model is telling us you can be successful without following the
Western example," said Arthur Mutambara, the deputy prime minister, a member of
an opposition party of Zimbabwe. "China is my favorite country," he added. 
The whole debate revolves around a model that researchers and officials,
including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, feel is itself a misconception.
At a press conference after the conclusion of the annual session of the
National People's Congress in mid-March, Wen said: "We are still probing in our
reforms and construction, and never regard our development as a model."
A recent symposium hosted by the Central Party School - the top training center
of the Chinese Communist Party for senior cadres, officials and researchers
from various institutions of China discussed the so-called China model. Their
comments were published on a Beijing-based financial journal, China's Reform,
on September 1. 
A few participants did agree that there was a China model. Sun Liping, a
professor from Tsinghua University, said, "I think there is a China model. It
not only exists but also is in the final process of improvement." Wu Si, vice
president and executive editor of Yanhuang Chunqiu (China Through the Ages) - a
monthly magazine run by some reform-minded retired party elders, argued the
However, the majority of participants rejected the concept.
Zhu Lijia, a professor from the National Administrative Institution, argued
that the China model was a misconception, as China's modern social institutions
and values were still being developed or even at a primitive stage. Cai Xia, a
professor from the Central Party School, said that if a China model meant a
market economy dominated and pushed by the government, then China had simply
repeated what developed countries had done.
From this perspective, "We really have nothing new," Cai concluded. Xia
Yeliang, a professor from Peking University, argued that the so-called China
model in fact didn't go beyond the "East Asian Model" of the so-called Four
Asian Tigers - South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. "The definition of
China model used by either Chinese or foreigners is vague," Xia said.
Li Junru, former vice president of the Central Party School, had written in
2009 for Xuexi Shibao (Study Times) - a weekly newspaper run by the school,
that it was dangerous to define Chinese development as a China model. This
could lead to over-confidence and blind optimism in the country's development,
jeopardizing future reforms.
The ongoing debate underlines that the China model is a concept not accepted by
the Chinese government and many Chinese scholars.
Closer inspection of the concept reveals its similarities to the idea of a
"Beijing Consensus" created by American scholar Joshua Cooper Ramo, in 2004,
which has become widely used by Westerners to contrast with the Washington
Consensus. According to Ramo, the Beijing Consensus means fast economic
development in a state-controlled system, while the Washington Consensus means
liberal market and political democracy. From this perspective, the China model
is just another name for "Beijing Consensus", a label which is also rejected by
Since Beijing doesn't recognize the China model internally, it certainly denies
the existence of a China model internationally. Liu Guijin, China's special
representative on African affairs, had said in a May interview that China isn't
promoting a particular development model to counter a Western alternative,
"What we are doing is sharing our experiences," he said. "Believe me, China
doesn't want to export our ideology, our governance, our model. We don't regard
it as a mature model." 
It is difficult, if not impossible, for other countries to copy China's
experience in development, especially when taking into consideration the
country's unique culture, which without doubt influences its modernization. A
very important aspect of Chinese culture that has played a significant role in
supporting and maintaining today's Chinese political and economic system is the
This idea originated from the unification of the Middle Kingdom by the Qin
Dynasty in 221 BC. From then on, unification became ingrained in Chinese
culture. Throughout history, China was always reunified after a period of
In such a big country, this "Great Unification" calls for centralization. This
means that China needs a special political and economic system. In Africa,
according to its history and reality, many countries have undergone
democratization since 1990s, but such a high degree of centralization is hardly
a deep-rooted idea. While rulers in some African countries may envy Beijing's
highly-centralized political power, the "Jasmine" revolutions" have proved that
many nations reject it.
China has grown into the world's second-largest economy in the past 30 or so
years from a poor, developing country. It is natural that some African
countries are eager to discover China's "secret" and boost their own
development. However, African nations cannot simply copy China's model. They
need to realize their own path of development.
Why has the US suddenly become so concerned with the so-called China model
becoming popular in Africa? This is likely due to US feelings of helplessness
as China expands its business interests and influence on the continent.
Struggling for an economic recovery, entangled in two so-called "wars on
terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq and shifting its strategic focus onto a "return
to Asia", Washington at this stage can actually do little in Africa. This
remains a "failed continent" for the US, yet it still holds a grudge about
China moving in.
A CNN report on September 9 said :
While Western countries are still
important players in Africa's energy sector, the deepening engagement of China
in Africa's infrastructure, mineral sector and telecommunications is creating
"deep nervousness" in the West, says David Shinn, the former US ambassador to
Burkina Faso and Ethiopia.
The competition in these areas, he explains, usually pits big Chinese
enterprises that are financially backed by Beijing's deep pockets against
Western companies that often have shareholders to consider and are by-and-large
acting independently of their governments' desires.
According to Shinn, this different system of government "does create anxieties"
because "the United States and the West see China filling all kinds of voids
that it thought it would eventually fill."
China overtook the United States as Africa's biggest trade partner in 2009,
according to OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development]
...figures, whereas in 2000 the United States' trade with Africa was three
times that of China's.
Shinn says that to the eyes of many African leaders China's capacity to move
fast, coupled with its policy of non-interference in other countries' internal
affairs, often makes Beijing a more attractive partner than the West, whose
policy in the continent is usually linked to conditions about good governance
and human-rights reforms.
So what can China do to satisfy
Washington and the West? It should be pointed out that the sectors and areas
that China is engaged in in Africa are mostly those the West declines to become
involved in due to violence or low returns. Yet the West complains about
China's competition with them.
Should China pull all its businesses out of Africa? It is intriguing to note
that Western "concerns" come as the US and the European Union are seeking
increased Chinese investment. In today's increasingly inter-dependent world,
the US - though still the sole superpower - should be "generous" enough to
welcome China's business activities in Africa. After all, peaceful competition
is a core value of Western capitalism.
Dr Jian Junbo, an assistant professor of the Institute of International
Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai, China, is currently an academic visitor
at London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom.
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