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What China Did Right That Africa Did Not

Thanks to its unrepeatable historical failures, Africa offers China nothing that would ensure its own sustainable development. Instead, it opens her internal markets for Chinese industrial products, oftentimes cheap and of low quality.

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Africa and China have a shared experience in terms of foreign occupation, imperialist aggression, and underdevelopment. But while the former is still thumbed down by the same horrible forces, the latter has been successful, at least until now, to confront them, a success that has brought the world’s most populous nation to its current status as an economic powerhouse. Beijing has joined the superpowers club now and is trying to seize every chance available to it.

It seems to me that the different developmental paths that China and Africa took immediately after winning their liberation struggles — the former from feudalism and foreign occupation and the latter from colonial powers — are responsible for the two’s different status of China being a donor and Africa being a donee. While China embarked on the road to liberation and unification of the vast nation under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in Africa, each part of the colonial territory went on its way and the dream of a united Africa became a pipe dream.

That alone would be enough to be responsible for the current extremely varying degrees of success between China and Africa. But there are other factors. When the neoliberalism gospel came into being in the 1970s, with former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s slogan that, ‘There is no alternative, the free market was the only way’ taken as absolute truth, the CCP had already studied the ‘profit over people’ game. 

Differing stories of opening-up

Deng Xiao Ping, who succeeded Mao Zedong as China’s paramount leader, with all credits that are being bestowed upon him for “opening up” China, never undermined the sovereignty and integrity of the nation that the 1949 Chinese Revolution aimed at. This means that the liberalization of the economy in China was well calculated and it came in the times when the Chinese population was ready to seize every opportunity that reforms could have offered while protecting the untouched sectors such the land (which till to date remains state property). 

The state’s eyes and hands were always on the economy that includes investing in both production and service industries, so state coffers thrived the same way as private coffers. The conditions for Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) in China were not just designed to please foreign businesses but Chinese too. The CCP refused to reduce the state to a position of a ‘custodian of development’ for they knew well the context of China and its people more than the proponents of the blind free market. They never stopped subsidizing every economic activity and welfare programs were retained.

Africa’s story of liberalization is different and it is one of the chapters in the continent’s history book of failure. Many African states subscribed to neoliberal reforms while their productive forces were too immature and incompetent. The Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), loans provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to countries that experience economic crises, demanded struggling African countries to surrender everything including the little gains they had achieved. SAPs mandate macroeconomic policy changes that obligate recipient nations to liberalize their trade and investment policies.

Dwarfs contending with giants

The free market model imposed on African nations meant that dwarfs now had to contend with giants. The results were devastating in many African economies. Here in Tanzania, for instance, hundreds of thousands of workers lost their jobs when corporations and companies were privatized. As a result of the termination of welfare programs and subsidization of economic activities, we ended up crippling crucial sectors such as the agriculture and manufacturing industry. Illiteracy skyrocketed. Access to health services stumbled. For a reference, you can check out the story of the Mang’ula factory that was privatized and the new owner turned it into farmland.

Presently, the Red Dragon is flying high in the skies and exhaling fire in a manner that its adversaries can do nothing to contain it. China’s rapid economic growth, military and diplomatic leverage, with a very willing and able population, has never halted in the past 40 years. I’ll not be overstating if I say that everyone now feels if not fears the presence of China. It seems like its political-economic system can’t be deciphered. China has managed to deeply couple its economy with the Western economies while at the same time managing to completely decouple its political system, something that the mighty USSR never came close to during cold war times.

China now plays its card well to outpace the West in Africa. The communist state has studied Africans well and knows that regardless of being dependent on the West many African rulers do not like to be policed in their deeds. African rulers know that if they are to be collectively summoned to Brussels, Washington or London on top of aid packages there will be condemnations of corruption, human rights abuse and democracy. But Beijing can condone all those ‘non–issues’ if it has secured the economic partnerships and trade deals it wants.

Africa as a universal recipient of aid

African states, who have unfortunately positioned themselves as permanent universal recipients of aids and grants, see Beijing as an alternative to the conditioned aid packages from the West and they don’t hesitate to extend more and more concessions to China. “The thing that makes you happy about [Chinese] aid is that it is not tied to any conditions,” former Tanzanian president John Magufuli was honest enough to reveal his love for Chinese aid in November 2018. “When they decide to give you, they just give you.” 

Beset by its historical failures, Africa offers China nothing that would ensure its own sustainable development. Instead, it opens her internal markets for Chinese industrial products, from toys, automobiles, electronic devices, furniture, clothes, food products and others. Most of these products are often cheap and of low quality.

With the ongoing debate on whether China’s presence in Africa is a curse or blessing for the continent, it is important to remember that there mustn’t be room for solidarity for naivety. If one will bother to study the conditions behind the TAZARA railway construction project of 1970-75 versus the ongoing Isaka-Mwanza Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) project of 2020 in Tanzania, he/she will likely learn two different series in terms of the conditions. But why was it possible for China to come and build an 1870 kilometre railway from Dar es Salaam to Kapiri Mposhi Zambia 21 years after the Chinese Revolution while both Tanzania and Zambia cannot even manufacture steel 60 years after their independence?

It is therefore not wrong to maintain that when China was busy leading what seemed to be an adventure while carrying its great leap forward, Africa was in stagnation if not altogether in great leap backwards. Sixty years now since earning their political independence, Africans marvel at everything Chinese with confusion and disbelief. We suffered alike but China, which turned 100 years old now, decided that until it was powerful no one in the country would be allowed to Rest In Peace. Africa, it turns out, never had that vision if it had any vision after all.

Muhemsi Mwakihwelo is a social movement organizer, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. You can reach him through his e-mail address These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at for inquiries.  


Digital Freedom and Innovation Day
The Chanzo is hosting Digital Freedom and Innovation Day on Saturday April 20, 2024 at Makumbusho ya Taifa.

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