In Africa, "The key to China’s success is, paradoxically, the lack of a defined model"
Book excerpt: Chinese believe that market-based industrialization is "not a view of developmentalism but a conviction out of century-long real struggle."
In the wake of the recent Ichikowitz Family Foundation’s 2022 African Youth Survey, (Bloomberg: China Surpasses US in Eyes of Young Africans, Survey Shows), Pekingnology is privileged to share an excerpt from Coevolutionary Pragmatism. Approaches and Impacts of China-Africa Economic Cooperation, published by Cambridge in January 2021.
The book’s official intro:
China-Africa economic tie has experienced lasting rapid growth since the 2000s, attracting lots of discussion on its nature and effects. A key question is whether Chinese engagements provide an alternative paradigm to existing mainstream models, like Washington Consensus, for developing countries. However, theories on state-market dichotomy can hardly explain the strong momentum of bilateral cooperation.
By examining a broad range of practices with solid field research, including trade, infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, industrial zones, labor and socio-environmental preservation, this book proposes a new angle of non-linear circular causality to understand Chinese approaches to work with Africa. Guided by the pursuit for sustainable growth rather than by specific models, Chinese actors are able to experiment diverse methods to foster structural transformation in Africa. In particular, the author carefully records mutual influences between Chinese and African stakeholders at all levels, from grassroots to policy making, to illustrate the effects of coevolving industrialization.
Proposes a new perspective to understand development and globalization to appeal to readers unsatisfied with mainstream development theories and the West-centred view of globalization
Demonstrate the non-linear circular causality through solid case studies where readers can understand theoretic arguments through vivid narrations and plain explanation
Provides an overview of the China-Africa relationship and uses data and materials collected from decades-long research in over a dozen of countries.
Prof. Tang argues as you will read later
The traditional donors and the economists in the West tend to define specific goals, such as output, income distribution, taxation and governance, as well as the methods to achieve these goals. Yet, the assumed effects of these preset goals and methods are calculated with static models of ideal market economy, insufficiently taking diversity and change in developing countries into account. Hence, the plans often appear as imposed conditionality on the African society and the policy tools seldom function as expected. Sharing memories of struggling with poverty, Chinese actors tend to consider the Africans as team members in the common pursuit of socio-economic development.
Chinese enterprises, when facing challenges in Africa, often refer to what happened in China before and are confident that the obstacles may eventually be overcome through transformation. While most Westerners may be frustrated by the lack of market regulation, insufficient facilities, weak supply chain or unproductive workers, Chinese regard them rather as opportunities. China had similar problems decades ago and managed to solve them eventually. Thus, Chinese players are optimistic about repeating their success in driving development, believing that China’s today can become Africa’s tomorrow.
However, the optimism based on the experience does not mean that Chinese want to replicate the so-called “China model”. The diverse and constantly changing experiments have already rendered it impossible for the practitioners to rely on definite models within China, let alone in the different context of Africa. The borrowing of experiences does not mean simple transplantation of models, but need to be analyzed in more depth.
After reviewing various aspects of Chinese engagements in Africa, we have now better insights into the drive for the growing bilateral ties. I argue that, as an alternative to the Washington Consensus, coevolutionary pragmatism presents a different way of understanding and promoting development: target-oriented instead of model-oriented, non-linear circular synergism instead of linear causal mechanism, and experiments with large varieties instead of setting universal rules. This manner of thinking goes beyond the dispute of specific political systems, economic policies or cultural traditions to address a more fundamental drive of comprehensive transformation towards industrial market economy. However, social, political and cultural specificities are not neglected, but are highly regarded and integrated by this thinking. Setting sustainable productivity growth as the goal, the non-linear approach stresses to work flexibly in diverse contexts and interact with various existing institutions.
Implications of coevolutionary pragmatism in China-Africa relationship
With the concrete cases in the development of China-Africa relationship, we can observe how the coevolutionary pragmatism functions. As discussed in previous chapters, the long-lasting and comprehensive growth of bilateral ties since the 1980s should be mainly attributed to the adoption of pragmatism in the collaboration. More specifically, the pragmatism of collaboration consists of three interrelated elements: 1) the unwavering target to promote sustainable economic development, 2) corresponding transformation towards market economy and industrialization, and 3) flexible approaches to coordinate multiple aspects and interact with partners during the transformation.
1) The importance of setting the goal in this coevolution process can never be overestimated, as all the scattered ad-hoc experiments form a consistent transformation only through the common target. China’s market-oriented reform and the change of China-Africa relationship both started with a shift of focus from political ideology to economic and productivity growth.
The new goal has an ambivalent nature. On the one hand, economic growth seems to be a universal demand in today’s world, neutral of cultural, religious or political values. On the other hand, the pursuit of sustainable productivity growth originated from the industrial capitalism. China and other developing countries choose this goal only after century-long struggle with the Western industrial powers. The target therefore has political implication of striving for independence and sovereignty at the meantime. Paradoxically, when China accepts the values of global capitalism, its rapid development gives it the capacity to resist foreign influence. Such experience adds political subtext to the goal with non-political appearance. Thus, the promotion of business and modernization can sometimes be interpreted as a new approach of China’s longtime policy to support movements against Western hegemony. Nonetheless, the political implication is covered and largely diluted by the economic interests, which are indispensable from global capitalism. The seemingly straightforward goal of pragmatism in China-Africa relationship has indeed deep-rooted complexity.
2) The socio-economic transformation which is required to achieve the goal of continuous productivity growth is even more complex. As traditional, subsistence societies evolve into industrial societies with deepening specialization, extensive division of labor and massive market distribution, almost all social classes and every aspect of social life is greatly affected. Different stakeholders may have differing views on the benefits and losses. Communal gains may need individual sacrifice. Long-term benefits may require high costs in a short period. The transformation inevitably generates numerous controversies and disputes.
Moreover, the changes are highly interdependent. Without industries and markets in place, the society cannot develop expertise on market regulation, entrepreneurship, infrastructure management and others. Yet, without these supporting conditions, industries and market can hardly sustain. The chicken-egg dilemmas exist in China’s own reform as well as in China-Africa cooperation. The interdependent transformation also means that foreign experience or knowledge cannot be simply transplanted. Every society has its unique manner of coordination.
3) Being aware of the complexity in the structural transformation, Chinese lay emphasis on building synergism instead of using linear mechanism or fixed models. Gradualism and experimentalism allow various parties to mutually influence each other. As the book shows, no matter in trade facilitation, infrastructure construction, agricultural assistance, manufacturing investment or cooperation zones, Chinese government and enterprises responded to challenges and criticisms in Africa swiftly and demonstrated remarkable flexibility to adjust to different environment. These pragmatic approaches conversely generate incremental impacts on the local societies, too.
Taking the China-Africa economic and trade cooperation zones as an example, the program envisioned by experts and officials in Beijing turned out to have departing growth trajectories and effects. Some zones, like the Chambishi zone in Zambia, were able to construct largely according to the developer’s plan and transform the industrial landscape in the area, whereas other zones, like the Eastern Industrial Zone in Ethiopia, faced immense challenges to implement their original plans at the beginning. However, the Eastern zone’s experiment and interactions with the local authority gradually changed the policy there. Ethiopia’s new effort for industrialization eventually helped the Eastern zone thrive, albeit in an unexpected manner. The example demonstrates the mechanism of mutual influence: While China-funded projects impact African countries, the demands and feedback of these countries also reshape Chinese practices. Similarly, interactive synergism can be found between Chinese actors and African workers, business partners and communities.
You can buy the book on Amazon.
Comparison with the Western Approaches
By contrast, the traditional donors and the economists in the West tend to define specific goals, such as output, income distribution, taxation and governance, as well as the methods to achieve these goals. Yet, the assumed effects of these preset goals and methods are calculated with static models of ideal market economy, insufficiently taking diversity and change in developing countries into account. Hence, the plans often appear as imposed conditionality on the African society and the policy tools seldom function as expected. Sharing memories of struggling with poverty, Chinese actors tend to consider the Africans as team members in the common pursuit of socio-economic development. China’s experience of dynamic synergism enables them to take African initiatives as a part of the open game, in which interaction and coevolution are more important than preset plans. Echoing the metaphor in chapter one, Chinese practitioners feel like playing football with the Africans, whereas many donors and economists are thinking of constructing machines for Africa. China’s stance of non-conditionality does not only show respect to Africa’s sovereignty, but also suggests a different way of understanding development. In fact, China has significantly altered many practices in African governments and societies during the collaboration, sometimes through longtime discussion, sometimes through demonstration projects and more frequently through daily interactions, as illustrated in this book. Non-conditionality does not mean indifference, but signifies acknowledgement of the African partners’ full initiative and their capability of coevolution.
Apart from showing respect to the partners, Chinese prefer commercial partnership to one-dimensional aid for the purpose of ensuring the sustainability of growth. Aid programs are principally initiated by foreign actors and given to the recipients in one-way direction. Without reciprocal rewards, the aid programs often lack a structure to secure sustainable operation in themselves. China’s aid projects in the past, as well as those of other donors, suffered a lot from the unsustainable mechanism and have to rely on further foreign assistance. Moreover, since these projects and programs are short-term by nature, they are unable to catch up with the transformation of local society in the long run and often become alien, obsolete and abandoned after a while. By adding commercial interests into aid projects, China-Africa economic ties have improved both sustainability and effectiveness.
Of course, the co-evolutionary pragmatism does not provide an omnipotent solution to all the problems of underdevelopment. Concrete challenges require specific techniques and tools. The discussion about the Chinese approach and thinking does not deny the values of the experiences and skills obtained by the Western experts. Addressing broad socio-economic transformation, the coevolutionary pragmatism offers a holistic view of the development process instead of sticking to individual problems. Since Chinese have gone through dramatic socio-economic transformation during a relatively compact period, they are more likely to discern the connections between the numerous changes and grasp them together as a whole. Relatedly, they also tend to link different aspects of the development to tackle the chicken-egg dilemma. For instance, infrastructure construction is planned in coordination with industrial investment and SEZs, which are further orchestrated with efforts to urbanize, to build clusters, to launch policy reform and so on.
Indeed, Chinese actors are not as experienced in doing business in Africa or as knowledgeable of African society as many Western peers because of the relatively short history of China-African cooperation. Quite a few operations, when observed separately, may appear clumsy, but the spirit of coevolution tolerates experiments and mistakes. Initial mistakes may even become beneficial for the overall development as the mistakes call for active revision and mutual adaptation. Although there have been frequent controversies about Chinese engagements in Africa, from environmental issues and labor disputes to sub-standard products and debt burden, none of them stopped the growing trend of bilateral ties. Meantime, we can see from the research in this book that Chinese reacted to the challenges by adjusting policies or enhancing communication. Swift response to challenges and capability of self-correction belong to the essence of co-evolutionary pragmatism, which follows the principle of “crossing river by touching stones” and keeps moving forward through trial-and-error experiments.
You can buy the book on Amazon.
Linkage to China’s own Development
In this connection, we can see that coevolutionary pragmatism is a consistent principle guiding both China’s own market-oriented reform and China’s engagement with Africa. The experience of transformation at home shapes the direction and manners for Chinese engagements in Africa. Chinese enterprises, when facing challenges in Africa, often refer to what happened in China before and are confident that the obstacles may eventually be overcome through transformation. While most Westerners may be frustrated by the lack of market regulation, insufficient facilities, weak supply chain or unproductive workers, Chinese regard them rather as opportunities. China had similar problems decades ago and managed to solve them eventually. Thus, Chinese players are optimistic about repeating their success in driving development, believing that China’s today can become Africa’s tomorrow.
However, the optimism based on the experience does not mean that Chinese want to replicate the so-called “China model”. The diverse and constantly changing experiments have already rendered it impossible for the practitioners to rely on definite models within China, let alone in the different context of Africa. The borrowing of experiences does not mean simple transplantation of models, but need to be analyzed in more depth. First, China’s experience provides a different angle to observe the problems in the development. As noted, successful examples of transformation lead more people to think about opportunities rather than risks, and become more willing to initiate ventures. Although the effect is just psychological, it is critical for solving the chicken-egg dilemmas in the structural transformation, because it can mobilize tens of thousands of Chinese businessmen to operate and invest in Africa. In an underdeveloped market, where economic inactivity coexists with deteriorating regulation, infrastructure and industrial support as well as unfavorable socio-cultural conventions, the arrival of numerous foreign enterprises may turn the trend towards a virtuous circle: growing business activities stimulate amelioration of business environment and supporting services, which in turn attract more investments.
Second, the impacts of Chinese engagements on Africa’s structural transformation are closely related to China’s current development stage. In comparison with advanced economies in the West, China’s level of industrialization makes it more likely to collaborate with African countries. The capital-intensive business models of the developed countries consider the small African market unattractive, whereas Chinese firms can find numerous complementary needs with the African partners. African consumers welcome reasonably priced industrial products. Cost-efficient construction firms are extremely needed to build Africa’s infrastructure. China can also supply all kinds of generic machinery for manufacturing investments in Africa. Conversely, Chinese manufacturers require large amounts of raw materials and resources from Africa. Africa’s developing market and abundant population provide opportunities for the further expansion and relocation of China’s industrial sectors too.
Third, China’s development experience opens people’s eyes about the possibility of different socio-political patterns in the modernization process, superseding the state-market dichotomy. In order to make business possible in not-fully-functioning market systems in China and Africa, enterprises and government have experimented various approaches other than those used in the advanced economies. For example, state-funded financing for infrastructure or combining construction contracts with natural resource deals to reduce risks. Special economic zones are created to attract FDI and facilitate reform, too. In spite of the government’s active involvement, none of these measures rejects the principle of market economy. China’s experiences exactly proved that distribution and production via market mechanism can effectively elevate productivity. From the narrations in the book, we can see that almost all the Chinese stakeholders in Africa are convinced of the importance of market economy, and most of the projects strive to include market mechanism. They just have to make concrete market activities possible within Africa’s diverse and challenging socio-political conditions. The assistance of the state, as one of the pragmatic approaches, aims to facilitate the formation of a functioning market mechanism and promote broad sustainable growth. The relationship between the state and the market is not fixed, but can be flexibly adjusted according to practical needs of growth.
In summary, what effectively drives China’s phenomenal growth and ever-increasing impacts on Africa is not any specific political-economic pattern, since the patterns have been constantly changing. The key to China’s success is, paradoxically, the lack of a defined model, as it allows diverse practices and flexible adjustments. The pragmatism opens more possibility for developing countries to transform than the dogmatism. With the consistent goal of development, the pragmatic thinking enables multiple stakeholders to coevolve in diverse contexts through open attitude and real business. This finding also suggests that the pragmatic approach is not limited to China and Africa. Any actors in the structural transformation can think and act alike. Western societies experienced similar transforming synergism in their own history of industrialization too. Yet, people in established industrial societies may overlook the changing dynamism and fall into dogmatism of certain static models. Such mistakes are not limited to Westerners either, but can also be found among Chinese, Africans and any persons who fail to see the whole picture of gradual comprehensive transformation. In this connection, the true implication of this book is to use the ongoing China-Africa engagements to remind the readers of a holistic manner of understanding and promoting development which is common to all the transforming societies, but is easily concealed by fragmented observations.
You can buy the book on Amazon.
Destination of Development
Finally, the pragmatic coevolution is driven by a supposed common goal: economic growth, which primarily refers to modernization and industrialization in the context of developing countries. However, this is by no means a self-evident choice. As noted in Chapter One, almost all the countries in the world, except those with short histories, have experienced the shift from venerating traditional religious and ethical values to prioritizing productivity growth in the modern era. Corresponding to the value shift, the social organization and living style has dramatically metamorphosed. For most developing countries, such transition of social values and organization did not initiate from the indigenous communities, but were compelled by the global trend which originated in West Europe. Industrial capitalism overwhelmed all the other socio-cultural forms with its ever-increasing material power and spread the pursuit of productivity growth worldwide.
To be sure, the pursuit of modernization and industrialization has attracted numerous criticisms in almost every society. Some blame capitalism for its exclusive focus on material wealth. Others insist on preserving traditional values and reject market economy as imposed foreign culture. Apart from the value crash, people are also increasingly aware of the troubles within the modernization, from income disparity and voracious consumerism to cultural homogenization and environmental destruction. Concerned with these intrinsic problems of modernization, many critics, in Africa and outside Africa, strongly resist pursuit of industrialization in developing countries. As China and Africa vigorously promote market activities and industrialization in their collaboration, they frequently encounter vehement protests and immense obstacles. A large part of the socio-environmental disputes or policy swings related to Chinese engagements in Africa are deeply rooted in Africans’ skepticism on industrial capitalism and their confusion about development direction.
Chinese understand the challenges of transformation and the intrinsic flaws of modernization too well, for they just recently experienced a similar shift at home. However, in spite of the costs and agony, most Chinese, no matter practitioners or theoreticians, firmly believe that market-based industrialization is the necessary path for developing countries. The analysis in this book clearly demonstrates such general consensus among the Chinese actors. This is not a view of developmentalism, as some scholars may label it, but a conviction out of century-long real struggle. China’s downfall and renaissance during the modern era have taught everybody in the country vivid lessons that resistance to the global trend only leads to underdevelopment. Sustainable productivity growth is the sole approach to escape further suffering. The pursuit of growth primarily does not look for material enjoyment, but seek rational accumulation. Max Weber named the frugal life-style of capitalists “worldly asceticism”. Likewise, the Chinese entrepreneurs and workers in Africa are widely depicted as “hard working” and “eating bitterness”. For the practitioners, modernization has never meant to be glamourous paradise, but rather a solemn mission full of rough challenges. While religious feelings may have driven early capitalists in the West, the actors in developing countries today are often motivated by the painful memory of being overwhelmed and dominated by foreign powers. Only when a society succeeds in harnessing the power of industrial capitalism through transformation, can they truly get rid of the colonialism and take their destiny back into their own hands.
Therefore, the goal of economic growth in the China-Africa collaboration is actually determined by the world history. It’s by no means a perfect choice, but proves to be a must for all the developing countries within the current international system. The irony is that the “iron cage” of capitalism, as described by Max Weber, cannot be broken when people stand out of the cage to resist the immense power of industrialization. A country first needs to become a part of the “iron cage” and thus reinforce the cage, and then it can reflect on the practices of modernization and realize the predicament of modern society. However, it is still an open question for the whole world, developed and developing countries alike, to explore how human beings can eventually escape the fate of “iron cage”. This is a much more profound question than what is discussed in this book. Every reader ought to continue thinking about it after finishing this reading. The conclusion on approaches and impacts of modern development is opening the door for further reflection and questioning.
The above is from Prof. 唐晓阳 Tang Xiaoyang’s Coevolutionary Pragmatism. Approaches and Impacts of China-Africa Economic Cooperation, published in January 2021 at Cambridge. Here is the Amazon link.
Prof. Tang is chair and a professor in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University.
More book excerpts in Pekingnology:
Lessons from Success & Failure: Indigenous Innovation in China from China’s Drive for the Technology Frontier: Indigenous Innovation in the High-Tech Industry, due July 7, 2022, via Routledge, by 李寅 Yin Li of Fudan University.
Localized Bargaining: The Political Economy of China's High-Speed Railway Program, just published at Oxford University Press, by 马啸 Xiao Ma of Peking University.
China's Land Finance, from Embedded Power: Chinese Government and Economic Development《置身事内：中国政府与经济发展》by 兰小欢 Lan Xiaohuan of Fudan University.
Former Deputy Secretary-General of State Council on foreign investment, WTO, industrial policy, etc. from Academic Autobiography of Jiang Xiaojuan《江小涓学术自传》by 江小涓 Jiang Xiaojuan
How Academic Research Contributes to China's Decision-Making, from Academic Autobiography of Jiang Xiaojuan《江小涓学术自传》by 江小涓 Jiang Xiaojuan