Sunday, August 7, 2011

Economic lessons from China for Africa

This is a brief opinion piece by Calestous Juma, a sometimes-cheerleader of Chinese incursion in Africa. He argues that China's rapid economic growth and improvement in quality of life offers lessons for African countries, even as China now tries to make land and resource deals with these countries. Something Juma doesn't mention (neither do others who look to developed European, American, or Asian economies as an example for development of Africa) is that China and all other countries that are prosperous today developed without much development aid or outside investment. There were no land grabs by outside countries in late-20th-century China, few outside investors coming in (at least not during the first stages of China's upward swoop), no humanitarian sector trying to shape China's government and economy. In fact, the early 20th century in which there was a lot of outside influence in the Chinese economy was one of the darker, more backwards moments in the country's history.

Furthermore, since the middle of the century, China has been such a powerful player in world politics that it can operate with relative autonomy regarding trade, social, and monetary policies. None of these factors are true of African countries today. So I don't see how China, or France, or the US, or Japan, or any other country that developed relatively autonomously can offer many lessons to Africa, especially if these countries are now intervening (interfering?) in Africa's development in a way they themselves were never touched during their own historical drive to prosperity.

Saying China's search for resources and markets is a way of helping Africa sounds a lot like France's claims that its colonial experiments were a civilizing force for the continent. I don't mean to make a strict comparison of Chinese economic expansion abroad to colonialism, because this would be facile and not very accurate. But let's not pretend that China's pursuit of its own self-interest is some sort of enlightening force in Africa.

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