Africa must have a new strategic approach to China

Zimbabwe's former deputy prime minister Arthur Mutmbara (left) meets Chinese President Xi Jinping.

BELOW is a book excerpt from In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream, Volume III (Ideas and Solutions) by Professor Arthur Mutambara.

AS a World Economic Forum (WEF) young global leader, and now as deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, I have been to China more than six times. On every occasion, I am overly impressed. There is either a new industrial complex or another major infrastructural project just completed.

The Chinese are on the move

On September 10 2009, in my capacity as deputy prime minister of Zimbabwe, I meet Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Dalian on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of New Champions 2009. This WEF meeting is also known as the Summer Davos.

In our bilateral discussions, we cover a broad range of issues. Given China’s sensitivity over Taiwan, as a starting point in any diplomatic engagement, one must state that: “We, as Zimbabwe believe in the One China Policy”.

With that eloquently out of the way, among other issues, I articulate our national aspirations and ambitions as follows: “As Zimbabwe, we are inspired by the Chinese economic model and example.

“We want to learn from you and then develop our own different but equally successful model – an efficient and democratic developmental state.

“In particular, we aspire to achieve rapid industrialisation by moving up global value chains. More specifically, we are no longer interested in exporting raw materials.

“Before any external trade, we want to effect beneficiation and value addition of all our natural resources and agricultural produce. This is the only context in which we want to engage China and the world.

“We seek to pursue a technology-driven economic strategy and infrastructure master plan. In this endeavour, we want to promote technology transfer and financial investments from China. All these activities we intend to pursue in a win-win framework.

“The Government of National Unity in Zimbabwe is a unique opportunity for the country to put economics before politics and develop a shared national vision, craft a national economic strategy, and fashion a competitive brand for the country.

“We seek lessons and partnerships from China on this unique journey.

“The Chinese people have been our all-weather friends from the liberation struggle against European colonialism and imperialism. We thank China for offering support and help to our national development over the years.

As the situation in Zimbabwe stabilises, we welcome China to participate in our economic reconstruction actively. Indeed, as I have already indicated, Zimbabwe hopes to enhance cooperation with China in areas such as trade, investment, agriculture and infrastructure.

“However, all these activities must be carried out within the context of our uncompro”misable commitment to moving up global value chains – strict adherence to local beneficiation and value addition.

“Of course, politically, as an inclusive unity government, we intend to bury the perennial challenges of disputed elections by collectively crafting a new national constitution and implementing comprehensive electoral and political reforms, thus facilitating free, fair, credible and transparent elections in Zimbabwe.”

In his remarks to me, Premier Wen Jiabao intimates that peace and stability in Zimbabwe not only benefits the Zimbabwean people but are conducive to China-Zimbabwe relations. He indicates that he appreciates that Zimbabwe’s unity government attaches importance to developing ties with China.

He emphasises that China supports Zimbabwe’s efforts to revitalise and build its economy and is ready to enhance cooperation with African nations to overcome any current challenges.

Wen Jiabao is as sharp as a whip. He is globally respected across the world.

During World Economic Forum (WEF) events, when he is the key speaker, Western leaders such as Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameroon, Tony Blair, George W. Bush and Barack Obama rush into the venue to grab front seats and eat right from the Chinese supremo’s hand.

They attentively absorb every word from the master. Wen Jiabao is a superstar leader – a rock star to the mediocre leaders from Europe and the United States.

As I write these memoirs in 2023, I cannot help but notice with utter dismay how the China strategy for Zimbabwe that I articulated to Wen Jiabao on September 10 2009 has been completely disregarded by the mandarins in Harare.

They have done the opposite

They have mortgaged the country’s natural resources to the Chinese for a song. No beneficiation. No quantification of unmined assets. No technology transfer. No economic vision.

It is just shameless looting by a few, while the Chinese have a free hand to do as they please.

Of course, I do not blame the Chinese for taking advantage of the clueless, directionless and incompetent kleptocracy presided over by Emmerson Mnangagwa.

The Chinese are not Father Christmas They are businesspeople looking after their national and commercial interests.

Africans must wise up, define their aspirations and then protect and advance these in all dealings with the Chinese or any external player for that matter.

In September 2010, I am back in China to attend the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Investment Forum held in Xiamen, China. I am heading the Zimbabwean delegation as deputy prime minister. The official opening is on September 7 2010.

The Forum is attended by more than 1 800 participants from 120 countries and 16 international organisations.

Amongst the participants are nine Heads of State, four leaders of international organisations, 79 ministerial-level officials, 116 senior business executives, and more than 250 other senior representatives from the public and private sectors.

These include heads of investment promotion agencies, academics, and others. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (now the current Chinese President) officially opens the gathering.

The Forum has eight high-level events and conferences, which bring together stakeholders from all angles of the investment community.

These include policymakers, investors, negotiators, practitioners, investment promotion officials, solicitors, senior counsels, and academic experts.

Furthermore, there are representatives of civil society, as well as stock exchange executives and regulators, portfolio investors and sovereign debt managers.

The Forum’s primary objective is to understand better the development challenges and opportunities that the post-2009 economic crisis investment landscape entails.

This mandate is broadly achieved. The gathering also provides inputs into the formulation of a new generation of national and international investment policies.

Of prime importance and focus is the fostering of sustainable development in pursuit of the achievement of the MDGs in the new phase of globalisation.

As in 2009, the Zimbabwean delegation is afforded an opportunity to meet with Vice President Xi Jinping and his colleagues. On my team, I have deputy minister of industry Mike Bimha and Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to China, Frederick Shava, among other colleagues.

As in the 2009 bilateral meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao, I articulate a clear trajectory away from traditional China-Africa trade relations.

I emphasise the importance of local beneficiation and value addition of all African natural resources and agricultural produce; a technology-driven economic strategy; rapid industrialisation and infrastructure development; and technology transfer from China to Africa.

An additional aspect that I proffer is the importance of scale – numbers.

It is more beneficial for China and Africa if the economic engagement with China is structured and implemented at regional and continental levels and not national ones. Sadc, Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) or East African Community (EAC) engaging with China and the African Union (AU) being the prime forum to deal with China – should be the only platforms for economic cooperation with China.

There should be no bilateral deals between any one African country and China.

All engagements should be at the regional or continental level.

Needless to say, in 2023, 13 years later, there are no takers for this different approach to China. African countries are falling over each other to strike bilateral deals with China, getting short-changed in the process.

Again, I do not blame China for taking advantage of and exploiting the foolish and unstrategic Africans.

We must restate without equivocation or ambiguity: As they come to Africa, the Chinese are not running a not-for-profit philanthropic enterprise. They are business folks. If you blink, you get shafted.

The African must put on his or her thinking cap.

From the 2010 meeting with Vice President Xi Jinping (now the current Chinese President), it is clear that able and competent technocrats are steering the Chinese state.

In Xi’s case, he is a chemical engineer with a near-photographic memory. The Chinese President himself, Hu Jintao, is an electricalengineer.

In fact, the standing committee of the Chinese Politburo is dominated by engineers, economists and other business, finance and technology experts. Fast forward to 2023, Xi has been the Chinese President for a while, and again, he is surrounded by engineers (including aerospace and artificial intelligence specialists) and other technocrats.

Compare this with the corrupt, incompetent, unskilled and unsophisticated mediocrity – the riff-raff that dominates African Cabinets across the continent.

It is shameful

Indeed, it is not surprising that the fortunes of the African continent remain dire.

Africans must have a new strategic approach to China.

They must also embrace some of the drivers of the Chinese success story: competent, non-corrupt technocratic leadership, scale through leveraging a large population, innovative technology deployment, long-term strategic planning, putting a premium on implementation, and the primacy of massive infrastructural development.

  • Mutambara is the director and full professor of the Institute for the Future of Knowledge at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.

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