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Chinese Experiences in Development: Implications for Africa

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Chinese Experiences in Development: Implications for Africa
Li Anshan
2009-06-18, Issue 438
With reference to four key areas of 'political leadership', 'social stability', 'agricultural production' and 'initiative and aid', Li Anshan discusses China's developmental record and its potential lessons for Africa. Stressing the importance of a country's developing its own path, Li writes that foreign aid should not be permitted to become a permanent source of income or to compromise individual countries' sovereignty. If Africa is to realise its bright future and harness the considerable potential of its human and natural resources, the author argues, its governments must use their funds in ways which sincerely benefit areas most in need.
'China’s rise' is becoming an event, a phenomenon, a topic and a theme, while China’s engagement in Africa has also aroused a lot of interest, even tension, in international academia and politics. There is also some talk about a 'Beijing Consensus' or 'China model'.[1] There are some debates within Chinese academia regarding these terms, yet the Chinese leader seems to be reluctant to accept these terms. The very reason could be that China had some negative experiences of copying others' models. 

China’s development is simply a process of learning, learning from anybody who can provide a better way for development, and the process is still going on. To apply others’ experiences and lessons, that is, their success and failure, to your own conditions, is the only applicable lesson that China can offer. Obviously, there are some experiences of China’s development. In this paper, I will simply discuss four fields more relevant to Africa. The four issues of political leadership, social stability, agricultural production and reasonable use of foreign aid shed some light on the course of African development. 


In China, the political leadership is strongly emphasised. The Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) leadership is supposed to represent the people’s will and serve the people’s interests, with party school, party commission and party branch as the organisational guarantee. The leadership comprises two contents: the paramount party leadership and political leadership itself. The party leadership over almost everything has existed for a long time and will continue for some time. Here I only want to discuss political leadership and its succession.

Chairman Mao once pointed out 'When the political map is determined, cadres are the decisive factor.'[2] After the Cultural Revolution, there was a difficult time in the selection of a new generation of leadership. In 1980, Deng Xiaoping emphasised this issue and later put forward the standards for the young CCP leaders, which was termed 'four-way transformation' ('sihua') of the cadre corps, i.e., younger leaders around the age of 40 who were 'revolutionary, younger, more educated, and more technically specialized' ('geminghua, nianqinghua, zhishihua, zhuanyehua').[3] Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao also put a great emphasis on the political leadership of the CCP.

In order to train good leadership and guarantee a healthy power transition, various ways are adopted, such as a strict process of selection, fieldwork, party school training and shift work experiences. Young carders are usually sent to the local level for field study or fieldwork at the grassroots. There are continuous and systematic theoretical trainings which are usually held in party school in different levels, among which the central party school is the top one. Promising leaders are also shifted from one position to another, in order for them to get different work experiences. 

Yet the power succession is a key issue in the history of the CCP. It is true that in the history of the CCP, the moment of power succession is sometimes accompanied with political crisis, interruption or disturbances. According to the theory of political science in the West, 'authoritarian regimes' like China are inherently fragile because of their weak legitimacy, over-reliance on coercion, over-centralisation of decision-making and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms. This presumption has been less convincing with China’s experience of development. Andrew Nathan, in his article published in the Journal of Democracy in 2003, pointed out that China’s leadership was stable and the regime resilient, which presents a new challenge to classical political science.[4] 

In his article, Andrew Nathan listed several phenomena indicative of the institutionalisation of the succession process: 

- Jiang Zemin finished his full term in office and did not stay in office past the time when the rules said he should leave. Jiang was the first leader in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC) not to select his own successor. 
- The retired elders did not attempt to intervene in the succession or, indeed, in any decision; the military exercised no influence over the succession. 
- The selection of the new politburo was made by consensus within the old politburo. According to his judgment, meritocracy played a larger role, and factionalism a smaller role, in the rise of the fourth generation than was the case with earlier generations of Chinese leaders. 
- Five of the nine members of the new Politburo Standing Committee were alternate members of the Central Committee as long ago as 1982. 
- Never before in the PRC's history had there been a succession whose arrangements were fixed this far in advance and whose results were so unambiguous in transferring power from one generation of leaders to another. 

His observation was fairly good, but his presumption is somewhat inaccurate or incorrect. 

His judgment of the CCP’s 'weak legitimacy' is definitely wrong, obviously biased by his perspective on the communist party. 'Over-reliance on coercion' is not an accurate statement, which is more or less contradictory to the reform which is going on right now in China. It is noticed that the process of going up-and-down has frequently been practiced in either political reform, economic development or social experiments; take the medical reform for example. The statement about the 'over-centralisation of decision-making' is not accurate. Ironically, centralisation has proven to be more workable and effective than the liberal way in the current financial crisis, in both its cause and its solution. The criticism of the 'predominance of personal power over institutional norms' is true in some sense, but not a reasonable generalisation.

Chinese people have, along with the West, realised that thanks to the staunch leadership of the CCP, China has kept its pace in development constantly, although with some setbacks and failures along the way. China will definitely continue its own way of development with great momentum.

In a recent conference to celebrate 30th anniversary of China’s reform, President Hu Jintao talked about 'bu zheteng'?' When Hu Jintao finished his expression, every Chinese participant laughed, which indicated that they understood and agreed. Yet the English translations afterwards such as 'don't flip flop', 'don't get sidetracked', 'don't sway back and forth' and 'no dithering' could hardly express its real meaning, which has its cultural background in Chinese politics. Every Chinese knows what 'zheteng' means, but there is no equivalent in English. The essence of 'bu zheteng' simply means do not create disturbance by yourself. Why did President Hu put forward this expression? That is because the CCP and the Chinese people once had a very negative experience of 'zheteng' and have had wasted a lot of time. This is a hard lesson they learned from their contemporary history. In other words, we should maintain a stable social order in order to achieve our goal of development. 

With the opening-up policy, the CCP realised that in order to maintain social stability, China should put more emphasis on economic construction. Deng Xiaoping made this very clear by saying 'Stability is more important than everything.'[5] For a society to develop in a consistent way, a stable political order is extremely important, especially for a developing country. Samuel Huntington also stressed the importance of stability in the process of modernisation. What’s a 'stable social order', or simply 'social stability'? It means that there is no destruction of or threat to the present social order or legislative system by any person, organisation or social group within the society, and the social life in the country runs normal and orderly. Stability is only a presentation of a peaceful and orderly society, and by no means indicates there are no social contradictions or confrontations. If the contradictions and confrontations between different political forces and interest groups do not present a threat to the frame of present social order and the legislative system, and cause open conflicts and chaos, the society should be considered as stable. 

We may define three types of social stability: traditional order, coercive order and institutionalised order. Traditional society is characterised as having lower productivity and less social stratification and social mobility, and therefore the social order is rather stable. In Chinese academia, this kind of stability is termed 'super-stability', which exists mostly in the pre-capitalist stage, and is therefore out of our discussion here. 

Coercive stability means to achieve social stability by force. When social contradictions and political conflicts cannot be solved within the present political frame and legislative system, the government, out of a certain motivation, decides to control or even suppress the acute contradictions by force or violence to maintain or strengthen the present social order, therefore to keep the socio-political situation in order. 

Institutionalised stability is a situation where all the social contradictions and political conflicts can be controlled or constrained in the frame of politics and law, which can be adjusted or settled through the channel of democracy or social reform, and the reorganisation or improvement of the political system, so that both politics and society can maintain stability. 

Of course, none of the three types of stability is pure, yet institutionalised stability is the most ideal one. Yet this kind of stability could not be easily realised, especially in developing countries, and the realisation of institutional stability needs some preconditions. While coercive stability is not all negative, that may create a temporary situation suitable for adjustment, which is necessary in some occasion. 

Generally speaking, institutional stability would not change to coercive stability, yet there is an occasional exception. Coercive stability could not last long and it may transform into two different directions. In some case, with the improvement of social and political conditions and the legal system, institutional stability is gradually established. In other cases, coercive stability could only last for a while before it may turn out to be a disaster. The better transformation depends on the orientation of the government’s interest and the choice of its policy. 


China is a country with a long history of agriculture. Africa also has a long tradition of agriculture. In China, 90 per cent of the population used to be rural; now this figure has decreased to about 900 million, yet it is still an agricultural state. China has put a great emphasis on rural development, with agricultural production on the top. There is a very common expression, 'wu liang bu wen', which means 'without grain, there is no stability'. The stressing of agricultural production in policy has been practiced since the founding of the PRC. 

With the opening-up of 1978, although there was a shift of emphasis on economic development, agriculture remained a key issue on the agenda of the Chinese government. It is well understood that China, with such a big population, simply could not afford to depend on the international market for food, something which has been taken seriously as a strategic issue in every generation of Chinese leadership. Although there was a neglect of peasants’ interests occasionally, agricultural production is always stressed and food provision is kept as the number one issue. 

Since poverty is concentrated in the rural areas, and the food issue is the key factor of poverty, the CCP keeps a sharp eye on three rural issues: agriculture, peasants and the countryside. As early as 1982, the first document issued by the Central Party Committee of the CPC and the State Council was on the agricultural issue. Since then, this first document of the year has mostly been on peasants or rural issues, such as the agricultural economy, agricultural planning, peasants’ income and the new socialist countryside. For example, the number one document of 2009 is to improve the stable development of agriculture and achieve a continuous increase in peasants’ income. Since great attention has been paid to the rural issue, China has speeded up the successful solution of its poverty. The absolute impoverished amount of the population decreased from 32 million at the end of 2000 to 23.65 million in 2005. A total of 8.35 million people were lifted out of poverty within five years, down by 5.87 per cent per year.[6]

Africa's cultivable land represents about 26.41 per cent of the total land of the continent, yet we have a picture of uncultivated land and a large population of poverty. In fact, in many African countries, food production could have been self-provided following the first decade after independence. Yet the later period witnessed the deterioration of the food situation, and food crises have occurred more frequently in recent years. Kenya is a good example, so is Zimbabwe. Why? There are external problems and obstacles, such as the fluctuation of food prices of international market, and foreign interference (the Berger Report, for example), yet we should also ask this question: Do African governments pay enough attention to agricultural production and its rural population? 

If a government could not feed or clothe its people, then you would be in a very difficult situation. You need either food aid or have to spend precious foreign currency to buy food. When Ghana needed both food and money for its development in the past years, the World Bank agreed to lend some money under the condition that Ghana open its market for rice. The condition was accompanied by the unfair trade rule of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which opened the market for cheap American rice. Although Ghanaian rice is better nutritionally, Ghanaians prefer the cheap rice from the US.[7] In many other African countries, they is still a shortage of food. They may consider their strategy again and put more emphasis on agricultural production. 


The last subject is initiative and aid, a very important issue for developing countries. The 'initiative' and 'aid' here have various aspects; while the former comprises individuals, the local level and the state, the latter encompasses the internal and external, including individuals, companies, the state, and international organisations. Obviously, only the needy need aid. 

Although China has gradually changed its position in recent years from aid beneficiary to aid provider, the country has a long history of receiving aid. Internally, providing financial support to the poor individual or area has always been an important issue in poverty reduction in China, and the notion has changed constantly. At first, the measure called 'blood-transmission' is adopted, with money provided to the less developed areas to solve the problem. The result is not ideal; money is spent but the situation does not change, year after year. The policy proves less effective, necessitating reflection. Then another notion of 'blood-making' is introduced, meaning to mobilise the initiative of the poor area and make the best use of local conditions to realise the purpose of development. All the financial aid – whether money, personnel or technology – is provided to support measures beneficial to contextualised development of the locality. 

The policy of 'blood-making' seems to work better than that of 'blood-transmission'; it is much more successful than the former. Yet with the new idea of scientific development, it is realised that in some areas the environment is targeted for particular protection. In those areas, blood-making certainly works for material development. Yet from a longer-term perspective, what is workable for the locality may not be good for the whole region. Or worse still, it is not a sustainable development and brings disaster to the people. What is more, the less developed area is usually the better ecological area which is chosen for environmental protection. In other words, for some particular areas which should serve an ecological role and thus not be suitable for industrial development, the government should compensate for environmental protection through blood-transmission in order to support the strategy of sustainable and scientific development. In sum, blood-transmission and blood-making should be combined in policy making.[8] 

No matter what the notion, it is realised that for poverty reduction, only if the needy realise the importance of poverty reduction and get down to solid work can the aim be achieved, with or without support from outside. 

Internationally, China has for a long time received financial support from outside, either international organisations or individual countries. The 1950s witnessed the financial support of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), comprising 156 projects, which contributed a great deal to China’s early infrastructure building. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping pointed out that we also needed to borrow some money for development. For more than 20 years, the overseas development assistance (ODA) from Japan has been number one among some 24 countries, and it provided ODA to China worth some 3225.4 billion yen, about 60 per cent of the total aid from foreign countries.[9] Yet China consistently adheres to the principle of 'self-reliance first, foreign aid second'. This principle is important in that it guarantees that China can develop according to its own strategy and own needs. 

First, while China can compromise on some issues, it would never give up its sovereignty for aid. In 1958, when the USSR asked China to make a concession in the issues of long-wave transceiver and allied fleet, Chairman Mao Zedong realised its intention to control China and thus refused resolutely. Second, China would not let the aid provider interfere with its internal affairs and would make its own strategy of development, with foreign aid as a subsidiary measure. Third, China will put foreign money in the most needed place, thus making the best use of foreign aid. How to make the best use of money provided by external sources has always been a serious consideration of the Chinese government. Fourth, China would always try to keep foreign aid, especially aid in the form of debt, on a controllable base. If a country relies on foreign aid too much, it will gradually develop a mentality of dependency on aid. When you depend on aid yet cannot get aid, you may yield your sovereignty for financial support. 

Most of the African countries have received foreign aid for quite a long time. According to William Easterly’s figure, for the past 40 years the West has spent more than US$568 billion on foreign aid to Africa. Easterly also observed that very little improvement occurred in Africa.[10] For example, Tanzania has been heavily depended on foreign aid, with a great percentage (40 per cent) of its revenue as foreign aid. Yet there is a high percentage of maternal death, with 24 maternal mothers and 144 new-born babies dying everyday. How to make the best use of foreign aid is a serious issue facing African countries. First, it is not proper to rely on foreign aid, yet most African countries still need foreign aid to promote economic development. There should be a balance in the introduction of foreign aid and the mobilisation of initiative at the local level. Second, foreign aid should be put at the most suitable place. In Africa, it is a common practice for the top leaders, whether presidents or ministers, to use the foreign aid or foreign-aided project to benefit their own home villages. I am not sure whether this is the best way to serve the whole country, or is this the best way to use foreign aid? Probably it is not usually so. 

With a great reservoir of human resources and rich natural resources, Africa would make its own leap forward soon if both its leaders and people work hard on their own. As the Nigerian historian Akomolafe Femi pointed out, 'China’s rapid economic transformation holds special lessons for those in Africa. Whilst the Chinese opted for an indigenous solution to their economic backwardness … China’s economic performance is nothing short of a miracle. It shows what a people with confidence, determination and vision can achieve.'[11] 

Let’s wait and see; the bright future of Africa is before us.

* Li Anshan is a professor at the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Peking University, China.
* Please send comments to or comment online at


[1] Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Beijing Consensus, London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2002. Since Joshua Ramo’s frequently quoted phase was out, there are quite a few discussions relevant to China’s engagement in Africa, as well as China’s soft power. See for example, Drew Thompson, 'China’s Soft Power in Africa: From the ‘Beijing Consensus’ to Health Diplomacy,' China Brief, 5:21 (October 13, 2005), pp.1-4; 'CHINA/AFRICA: Emerging Beijing consensus shapes policy', Oxford Analytica Daily Brief Service. Jan 24, 2006. p.1. For a recent application of 'China’s model' in Africa, see Johan Lagerkvist, 'Chinese eyes on Africa: Authoritarian flexibility versus democratic governance', Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 27:2 (April 2009), pp.119-134. 
[2] Mao Zedong, Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol. 2, Beijing: People’s Press, 1991, p.526. 
[3] Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol.2, Beijing: People’s Press, pp.190-193, 261-265, 384-388.
[4] Andrew Nathan, 'China’s Changing of the Guard: Authoritarian Resilience', Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003), pp.6-17.
[5] Deng Xiaoping, Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol.3, Beijing: People’s Press, pp.284-285.
[6] Zhang Lei, ed., The Course of Poverty Reduction in China (1949-2005), Beijing, 2007, p.337.
[7] Refer to Oxfam Annual Report (2005-2006). African cotton peasants also face the threat of the cotton from the U.S. where cotton producers are subsidized for $230 every acre of cotton. Lucy Bannerman, 'The farmers ruined by subsidy,' The Times, April, 9, 2007.
[8] Zhang Lei, et al., eds., Poverty Monitoring and Evaluation, Beijing: China Agriculture Press, 2008; Li Xiaoyun, et al, eds., Status of Rural China (2006-2007), Beijing: Social Sciences Documentation Publisher, 2008.
[9] Zhu Fenglan, 'The position and evaluation of Japanese ODA to China', Contemporary Asia-Pacific, Issue 12 (2004); Dai Yan, 'Does China need foreign aid any more?', Half-Monthly Talk, from 
[10] William Easterly, 'Can foreign aid save Africa?' Saint John’s University, Clemens Lecture Series 2005, No.17, p.3. 
[11] Femi Akomolafe, 'No one ss laughing at the Asians anymore,' New African, 452 (June, 2006), pp.48–50.