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Contextualising the China Development Model in Africa

Posted on: 04-Jun-2016

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Since the beginning of the millennium, there has been a sharp increase in speculations that China’s development trajectory may provide a model for other developing countries, particularly those in Africa. This poses a profound challenge to the dominant global paradigms of development; in the case of Africa, a highly charged media and policy debate now features in a growing body of academic literature on China-Africa relations[1]. There are critical questions revolving around the lessons that African countries are drawing from the China development model (CDM) - noting the emphasis on ‘development’ in the description of the model as distinct from an essentially economic one.

The desirability and prospect for African countries to emulate the CDM can be analysed from a variety of ‘development achievement’–oriented perspectives – economic growth, poverty reduction, human capital development and job creation, technological development and industrialisation, structural transformation and managing globalization, etc. The broad (research) question that arises then is to what extent and under what conditions the CDM is transferable to African development settings, including the influence of the key actors. To explore this question, it is first, useful to take stock of what has been written and to find out the degree to which this line of inquiry has been addressed by the literature.

While there is a considerable literature in the West now that looks at China-Africa relations or Chinese engagement in the continent, very little of this has focused on contextualising the CDM within African patterns of development. There are two kinds of texts on what has been written about China-Africa relations. The first type of writings are typically pieces that are trying to influence a particular policy audience via the media, or through think tank related publication – and a good deal of what has been written tends to be critical and rather negative. They have a specific agenda – normally to get this audience to take notice to “protect” Western interests and to make the point that there is something (worrying) about China’s incursion into Africa that marks it out for special interest and concern. These writings, drawing on subjective illustrative examples, denote considerable concern and sceptical views about China’s “exploitation” of Africa’s resources or “land grabbing” in Africa.

The second type of writings is found mainly in the academic literature, which looks at the bigger picture and tends to present a more balanced analysis of the relationship. They point out  some of the potential challenges that China presents for African states as well as acknowledge the many developmental benefits for Africa from the relationship. They also, more or less, agree that the ambition of China in Africa is not a missionary or preaching one aimed at imposing the Chinese political and/or economic system on the continent, but one of inspiring and assisting African nations to achieve development similar to China’s impressive achievement over a short period of time. Analysis of the China development model in these writings therefore tends not to emphasise political and official requirements or exaggerate institutional deficiencies, having a more nuanced view of the CDM’s applicability in different environments.

Looking at the CDM in the context of African development paradigms as a research approach, it is important to avoid the flaw of trying to present a single China-Africa relationship: a single driver of Chinese interests in the continent and a single consequence. Rather, the key is to identify different actors and different interests on both sides – not just on a nation by nation case, but different interests within individual African countries as well. In this regard, the focus could be on the role of those who can influence change within a particular country through seeking to emulate and adopt CDM- type strategies in the pursuit of their own development paths.

Crucially, Africa’s role in the relationship should not be seen as “passive” – such as simply a receptacle for Chinese projects, but one in which African agency is an integral part of the interaction with equation.  This approach provides a basis for analysts interested in China-Africa relations to identify and explore a range of different types of Chinese interaction with different African actors and interests. In seeking to cultivate external relations with African countries, China has long stressed its commonly shared roots with African nations as a developing country and as such the symbolic attraction of China clearly reverberates with many African elites who seem to look on China as a positive development model.   The analysis could thus focus on key aspects of this development cooperation such as aid, trade, investment, infrastructure, human capital development, etc. and the elaboration of concepts or views of mutual benefit, “win-win” scenarios and “shared growth” which are associated with the China-Africa relationship.

Within the realm of the political economy of African development, a case study could therefore be undertaken to examine the influence of the CDM on those ultimately charged with implementing and evaluating development and modernisation programmes in a country specific context – i.e. the political leadership, technocrats, business leaders, civil society activists). The case study can draw on theories of ‘cross-societal emulation’ and ‘lesson-drawing’ and relevant assumptions of modernisation theory to find out: if indeed political and modernising elites in a country seek to emulate the CDM in the context of their own development paradigms; what is driving the process of emulation (e.g. political system, economic model, technological change, historical link); what are the prospects of enduring and sustaining this emulation (e.g. how much influence do the modernisers wield in the overall development process;  and how pragmatic can the African political and modernising elites be in emulating the CDM to ensure, for example, the wider distribution of the benefits of development in accordance with  the new expectations of the people? Recent case studies and critical evaluations of China-Africa development cooperation are providing direction in this regard[2]

Finally, in contextualizing the CDM in contemporary African development paradigms, it should be recognised that China-Africa relations do not exist in isolation from the broader global political economy; it is important to consider how individual African economies are integrated into the production structures and networks of the global economy more generally rather than just look at bilateral relations with China.  In this context, analysis of China-Africa relations also has to take into account the significance of regional integration in Africa as the building block towards more general integration into the global economy.

The remarkable intensification in the relationship between China and Africa in the 21st century has become central to global economic and political discourses. The main question in these debates is whether China provides an alternative development model for Africa or whether its’ growing influence is nothing but a new era of African economic dependency. While the mutual perception of China-Africa relationship is improving, this brings with it challenges for Africa and China and the West as well.  Noting that Africa is the last new frontier of the global economy, these challenges relate to what China needs to do to sustain its African engagement against a backdrop of mounting African expectations, concerns from Western actors and interests,  and the rival presence of other  emerging players such as India, Korea and  Brazil. It is no surprise then, that China is showing considerable interest in partnering with the West - at both multilateral and bilateral levels – as well as with other emerging powers in “triangular” development cooperation projects in Africa. 

Professor Franklyn Lisk is a visiting Professorial Research Fellow at Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the University of Warwick

[1] For example: Mawdsley, E. (2008) “Fu Manchu versus Dr Livingstone in the dark continent? Representing China, Africa and the West in British broadsheet newspapers”. Political Geography, 27/2008, 509-529; Kennedy, S. (2010) “The myth of the Beijing Consensus”. Journal of contemporary China, vol19, no.65 and Brautigam, D. (2009) The dragon’s gift: The real story of China in Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] These include: Marysse, S. and S. Geenen (2009). “Win-win or unequal exchange? The case of Sino-Congolese cooperation agreements”. Journal of Modern African Studies, vol.47, no.3; Marton, P. and T. Matura (2012) “Uneasy allies: China’s evolving relations with Angola”. Taylor, I. China’s rise in Africa: Perspectives on a developing connection. Routledge and Lin, Yifu L. and Y. Wang (2014) “China-Africa cooperation in structural transformation: Ideas, opportunities and finances”. UNU-WIDER Working Paper 2014/046. Helsinki 

Edited by: Franklyn Lisk


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