ON October 1 China celebrated its National Day which coincided with the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Because of China’s global economic significance, the day was celebrated beyond its borders with some heads of State seeing it fit to make statements in honour of the day and in recognition of China’s economic achievements.
Since 1978, when China embraced capitalism, its economy has sustained an average economic growth rate of nearly 8%. By Western standards, this is remarkable. But of course, 72 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China is just a fraction of more than a 5 000-year long history of the Chinese civilisation. However, it is within the recent seven decades that China has become a global giant.
Some describe China’s achievements as a miracle because it grew from a poor and backward country to become the world’s second-largest economy and that the country has realised what others describe as long-term social stability. Of course, both these achievements were not natural but human-driven and part of a larger and concerted strategy to ensure that stability is sustained to avoid disruption of its economic growth.
The Chinese economic development, as we know it today, can easily be simplified as growing the economy at all costs, at the expense of everything and anything else is secondary. The benefits have been as massive as the costs.
Through its continuous economic development efforts, nearly 100 million impoverished rural residents in China have been lifted out of poverty, and all 832 impoverished counties and 128 000 villages had been removed from the poverty list by the end of 2020. With these figures and others, China boasts of being one of the countries that has experienced the fastest poverty reduction rate in recent decades.
Some of China’s public relations people have claimed that its success in poverty alleviation has proven that the problem of poverty is essentially about how people are treated and that its people-centred philosophy is the fundamental driving force behind its economic success. But there is a flip side and numerous questions around these mantras.
That approach is now known for its disregard for human rights and lack of consideration for environmental degradation. For example, pollution is a major problem in many industrialised cities in China. Increased car ownership has led to problems of smog and worsening air quality. This is not only affecting China. The economic growth in China has led to a global increase in carbon emissions which is believed to dwarf any savings Britain make in global emissions and has raised the importance of creating global agreements to limit environmental pollution.
Environmental contamination also happens from China’s massive industrial sector due to lack of regulation on environmental pollution. The rising demand for power and energy has placed a huge strain on national utilities, in some way, forcing people to resort to unregulated sources of energy. There are claims that China is committed to the mantra that a clean environment is an invaluable asset and that the country is now leading in increasing green coverage over the past two decades and taking an active part in the fight against climate change.
The reality is that even if China reclaims what it has environmentally damaged within its territories, there is no doubt that the damage caused by its economic growth approach in other countries and across the globe may never be repaired, just like what Western countries’ slavery and colonisation did to their former colonies. It is, therefore, surprising, if not disturbing, to hear an African leader declaring his desire to follow China’s path to prosperity.
In his message to the President of China Xi Jinping on the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, President Emmerson Mnangagwa is quoted by the State media on October 1 to have said that Zimbabwe “will continue following the Chinese path to prosperity as it seeks to become an upper-middle-income economy by 2030…”
While later in the article there was mention of “Zimbabwe will continue to learn” from China, it was vital to distinguish the two and identify which route the country must take with respect to China.
To follow means unquestionably supporting and admiring a particular person, institution or set of ideas, while learning is about understanding and drawing lessons from a situation and adapting those lessons to one’s context. The former is about parochial loyalism while the other is an empowered process of acquiring new knowledge and use it to one’s advantage, while retaining control.
For example, in 1978 China did not follow the West but it embraced Western capitalism within its communism and adapted it to its context. It borrowed an idea and domesticated it to suit its needs and context and ensured that it worked for the country while maintaining control over the idea.
If it had blindly followed Western capitalism, it would have meant abandoning its culture and communism and re-orienting its people to mirror Western societies. It would have taken it ages to acculturate its society to Western ways before realising economic benefits — a route adopted by many African nations. And that would have exposed it to the whims of Western dictates the same way African countries do. And in the race of economic growth that would not have enabled China to grow to where it is today.