It was not long ago, and in the lifetimes of many of the population today, that China’s car-clogged streets were once empty of motor vehicles. China was a nation stricken with poverty and inequality, and possible impending economic collapse in the country was a reality for the many ruling governments and their leaders.
It was only since initiating a series of post-Mao market reforms in 1978, through which China shifted from a centrally-planned economy to a market-based one, that the nation experienced rapid and exponential economic and social development. During this time, China’s GDP maintained growth at an average of almost 10 percent and more than 780 million people were lifted out of poverty – an achievement never seen before in a single period in the history of the world.
Many would see it as miraculous change in fortunes for China as the nation went from being poorer than Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia to rivalling the United States as the largest economy.
It is a common trend in the business world that poor, but mineral-rich, countries provide raw materials to the industrial world only to receive over-priced branded refined merchandise in return. However, it is those who put an eye to what made China’s growth so unique – bucking the trend by flooding the global market with similarly finished products cheaper in cost and more affordable to consumers – that also see Africa’s potential to not only replicate this but also improve upon it.
Evidently, Africa has no shortage of these mineral-rich countries. African mineral reserves rank first or second for bauxite, cobalt, diamonds, phosphate rocks and other precious rocks, and the mineral industry as a whole ranks as the largest in the world. But this is just the tip of the iceberg; the wealth of natural resources found throughout the continent span from tropical fruits and cocoa beans to timbre logs, not to mention the growing importance of African oil. This fact, combined with a low human density and huge swathes of untouched land, is precisely what led to the long periods of colonisation of Africa by more dynamic groups who aimed to exploit these resources.
It is from this that Africa can put itself as the leading manufacturing hub of the world, and is in fact poised to take advantage of these resources in a way no other nation or group can. This is where the stories of China development and Africa’s potential future development fracture and take different paths; its becoming increasingly visible that China is simply not ready to be power in the 21st Century in the way that Africa can be for two key reasons.
The slow march of Representative Government
The first is political; despite the resident media’s depiction of a class of genius technocratic authoritarians who can lead the country’s development, the reality of China’s regime is that its leaders are enormously corrupt. This is not to say that corruption is not present in Africa, as this frankly could not be further from the truth. One only has to look at the absolute monarchy of Swaziland (or eSwatini as declared by the residing King), the billions of US dollars embezzled by Nigerian politicians out of the country or the destabilised Sahel region in Libya, now in the hands of Islamist groups, to see this. But it is also true that the number of democracies is increasing, and corruption is slowly but surely dying out.
The Republic of Senegal shows us this fact, where the current President was gracefully conceded by the his predecessor after winning an election unburdened by protests, extending an unbroken democratic tradition that has held true since its independence in 1960. Even in the poorly organised and hazardous democracies south of the Sahara, electoral contests and term limits are increasingly accepted as fixed rules to be disregarded at a would-be ruler’s peril, rather than unreachable ideals. Today only one African state, Eritrea, holds no elections. This is in stark contrast to the situation in China, one that shows no signs of changing.
The hope is that through the growing democratisation of the region, better governance will beget more foreign investment into the nations. In turn the natural resources will be no longer plundered for the elite but capitalised upon in a way such that the dividends will trickle down and reach the people, whether it is through increased jobs or infrastructure development.
The next generation of young Africans
Secondly, and more importantly, the demographics are on the side of Africa. China is already an ageing country, a problem that has already become endemic throughout the Western world. According to the United Nations, China’s population is ageing at a greater rate than almost any country in recent history. The dependency ratio, a comparison of those not in labour force compared to those working, for retirees could rise as high as 44% by 2050. As a result, the pressure on taxable income and industries that depend on a large working population is only going to increase, and an economy whose growth was partially predicated on government credit is now slowing down.
On the other hand, Africa is experiencing rapid population growth that combined with a decreasing infant mortality rate has turned Africa into the world’s youngest continent. This is what is driving the rapid urbanisation of the region’s cities; sub-Saharan Africa is urbanising faster than any other place on the planet. By 2025, Africa will have three mega cities comprised of more than 10 million people each and Lagos, Nigeria is projected to be the largest city on Earth by 2075. Productivity in these large cities is three times as high as in rural areas, resulting in a growing middle class that could soon consist of one billion African citizens by 2060.
This gigantic youth bubble has consequently given Africa the world’s largest working population and potential workforce of the future as well as a huge market of money-earning citizens, and thus the world’s attention. Investors now see huge opportunities to invest in Africa’s non-commodities sectors such as financial services, construction and manufacturing, full of young people who are increasing healthy, confident and able to speak English; the languages of business.
The new ‘Factory of the World’ is already here
However, there is one nation that already shares fast growth, a strong national history and great confidence in the future with the previous ‘Factory of the World’ China. The nation of Ethiopia, whose growth rate is expected to be 8.5 percent this year topping China’s projected rate of 6.5 percent, could soon take the spot of the industrial hub of Africa. But the common feature shared by these countries that could be the key is a secure sense of past and defined vision for the future.
China, the nation-state that we are familiar of today, has long existed with continuity as one generally defined country. For thousands of years, various dynasties and kingdoms have ruled the land, and they are greatly revered by the population. This early establishment of China as a nation-state is what has helped it to quickly build and become an efficient and modern power. In the same vein, Ethiopia had the beginnings of being a mature nation-state from very early, having began as the Aksumite Kingdom in the first century A.D. Ethiopians see their country as an extension of these earlier political rulings; as a result, a organised national-level governance has been present for a long time in the nation. It was this strength of governance that helped them combat and fend off colonisation, a sight rarely seen in Africa.
Accordingly, this vision to be a great nation once again is ingrained in the culture of Ethiopia. The level of infrastructure thats partly thanks to foreign investment is very impressive; its home to hydroelectric dams and power plants, while the capital Addis Ababa is peppered with modern apartment complexes and has a light rail system that would rival any Western city, with a high speed connection to Djibouti and the coast. It is this reason that many opine is to be the cause for the lack of angst against Chinese investment in the country that is so present in other parts of Africa.
The heavy hand of China in Africa
The African Union building is Addis Ababa, a Chinese-financed and constructed symbol of the supposedly strong relationship that was developing between the nations, was built in 2012. But more than five years since, an investigation by Le Monde in January earlier this year exposed that the building was in fact bugged, with microphones hidden in desks and walls and data being transferred from the AU centre back to Shanghai servers nightly ever since the building’s opening.
However instead of resulting in an international scandal, the outcry after the incident was in fact rather muted. The Chinese government swiftly and adamantly denied the allegations and the African leaders stood by them without a single accusations, condemnations or threat. While the Chinese-Ethiopian relation weathered this incident without much visible harm, there are signs of an even greater storm brewing across the African continent of anger and resistance against Chinese intervention.
Negative views of Chinese investment have sky rocketed in recent years in Africa; in Ghana, positive perception of China tumbled from 80 percent in 2015 to 49 percent in 2017. Similar declines have also occurred in Kenya, Senegal, and Tanzania. This is all despite the ‘unconditional’ investment and aid that China has poured into the continent; funding infrastructure projects in numerous countries and establishing extensive educational and cultural exchange programs. There are many good reasons for this; low priced and low quality goods flooding the market, corrupt African officials taking Chinese bribes and the outsourcing of Chinese pollution to Africa.
Alongside all of this, there is one overall concern pressing on the minds of many Africans; the possibility that China’s “altruism” is in fact a front for an unbridled capitalist force that takes the fruits of African labour and leaves behind crippling future debt, with no regard for wealth fare of the locals or the damage left to the systems they live under.
While these factors that could hinder Africa’s ability to capitalise on its potential and gain a place among the high table that has previously reserved for Western and East Asian nations for so much of history. It is becoming that clear that the ends may not justify the means; an ominous future of pollution filled cities, low paid workers and corruption that has already been realised in China could be on the horizon for Africa. In a continent thats already so divided along tribal and political lines, this could spell an end to the dream of a unified modern Africa.
But it is this dream that has kept the nations of this vast continent going, that has kept them confident of their future, has kept them proud of their country and most importantly ready to step into a new world and make the most of what is to come.
Africa is full of ore and gold and diamonds and oil. But if the ultimate resource is people — and it is — Africa has the chance to not only to repeat the sort of industrialisation that has come before, but to improve on it. If it can’t entirely overcome the seemingly unavoidable trade-offs between development and democracy, economic growth and environmental health, then perhaps it can at least make them less stark. It’s an age old story, but Africa is poised to tell it in a new light.