China is an intensely intellectual power. The Communist Party of China, which marked its centenary this year, has emerged as the world’s most powerful ‘think tank’, now remaking the post-Covid-19 world order. China’s intellectuals are thinking, too, and explaining China’s complex model to the world.
In his classic tome, The China Wave (2012), Prof Zhang Weiwei, one of China’s leading thinkers, explains why the rise of China and its effective model of development are poised to change the world. China's rise, he argues, is not the rise of an ordinary Westphalian nation-state.
China is a distinct “civilisational state”. But it is also a “thinking state”, the Athens of the 21st century.
It is blending the values of its 5000-year-old civilisation with those of the modern era to churn out new thoughts and solutions to the problems of our times – and remake the world order as “a community of shared destiny” and “shared prosperity”. At the helm of this intellectual project is President Xi Jinping, certainly the most impactful Modern China’s leader after Chairman Mao.
During the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (October 31 – November 13), Xi spoke of a “green world” linked to his idea of an “ecological civilisation” that harmonises development and the safety of our natural environment.
Sustainable global order
During the United Nations General Assembly on September 21, Xi proposed a “Global Development Initiative (GDI)” to speed up the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to create a sustainable global order.
At his recent bridge-building virtual meeting with his US counterpart Joe Biden on November 15, Xi sought to dial back tensions between the world’s two largest economies over some Trump-era policies that sparked the Sino-American ‘trade wars” and imperilled global peace and economy. Beijing’s thinkers carry the gospel of a peaceful multipolar world order where nations and civilisations, great and small, live in harmony.
In Africa, China’s thinkers are curating and sharing lessons of its Reforms and Opening Up since 1979. These free-market reforms have spawned what the World Bank described as “the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history”. This growth has enabled China to lift more than 800 million out of poverty and to eradicate extreme poverty by December 2020. Beijing’s clarion cry is that Africa, too, can end extreme poverty.
All roads now lead to Dakar, Senegal, the venue of the triennial conference series of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) on November 29, 2021. The conference signifies China’s expanding intellectual footprint in Africa, now transforming the continent’s development space.
China is reaping the benefits of good and timely choices. At the dawn of the new millennium, the Economist (May 13, 2000) dismissed Africa as the “hopeless continent”. Africa’s traditional partners in the West rolled back their investments.
China ignored Africa’s doomsayers and chose a different path. Its strategists saw a continent of great untapped potential: natural resources, one of the world’s fastest-growing middle classes and a large and youthful market.
Three billion consumers
They envisioned a Sino-Africa market of nearly three billion potential consumers, potentially the largest in human history, combining China’s 1.45 billion people and Africa’s 1.38 billion inhabitants. They chose to plough in billions of dollars to unlock this potential.
In 2000, China launched FOCAC and invited African states to participate in its multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), humanity’s most ambitious infrastructure project, unveiled in 2013. Today, 53 out of the 55 African Union (AU) member states are in FOCAC and 46 are enlisted in BRI.
FOCAC and BRI form the twin engine of a new China-Africa development architecture. FOCAC is the engine of policy debates and formulation while BRI is its engine of funding and implementation. Through the architecture, China has supported projects such as construction of roads, railway lines, and ports that cut across and connect African countries. It has aligned its interests with Africa’s Agenda 2063 and visions of specific countries. In Kenya, China’s investments are largely aligned to Vision 2030 and President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four Agenda.
Between 2000 and 2021, China has committed more than $200 billion to fund Africa’s development priorities, including $60 billion and another $60 billion during the 2015 and 2018 FOCAC summits. Certainly, this is the largest economic bailout in history, and the first ever by a developing country. In 2019, China created a new Belt and Road Africa Fund (BRAF) to primarily support infrastructure, technology, e-commerce, artificial intelligence and industrialisation.
The impact of projects under this architecture is the subject of a new report by the Africa Policy Institute titled Shared Prosperity: Tracking the Belt and Road Initiative in Kenya, 2018-2021. The report shows that China’s investment is paying off.
Conceptually, the FOCAC-BRI architecture is an inextricable part of the story of “Africa Rising”. The once hopeless continent is no longer hopeless. Instead, it is a new frontier of growth and subject of a ‘New Scramble’. Between 2000 and 2021, the continent’s economy has expanded by 50 per cent in contrast to a world average of 23 per cent.
China has become Africa’s leading trading partner. China-Africa trade reached an all-time high of $192 billion in 2019. Beijing is also Africa’s biggest source of foreign direct investment. Its investments in Africa increased from $75million in 2003 to more than $2.7billion in 2021. Beijing is also Africa’s greatest source of development assistance, amounting to over 45 per cent of China’s foreign aid in the 2013-2018 period. More than 106 Chinese firms are operating in Kenya, with nearly 95 per cent of their workforce being Kenyan. China is also Africa’s main source of affordable technology.
But there are also naysayers to China’s development footprint in Africa. Critics fret that its massive infrastructure funding in Africa is a debt trap.
However, the Nairobi Expressway, now nearing completion, signifies China’s effective response to the debt-trap thesis. It represents innovative investment approaches to slow down rising debts and grow economies and capacities to pay and borrow. The new Sino-Africa architecture of development is Africa’s surest pathway to prosperity.
Professor Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Adjunct Scholar at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies at the University of Nairobi.