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Lessons from China

Africa can learn from China how to coordinate its research and policies to spur economic growth, says Clayton Hazvinei Vhumbunu.

China has developed at a rapid pace, emerging as one of the five largest economies in the world in the 21st century.

It experienced similar developmental challenges as Africa before its 1978 economic reforms that prioritised regional integration in research, among others, turned its tide.

Africa’s 54 countries, which mooted regional economic integration to sustain growth, can learn from China how to successfully coordinate policies and research to reduce poverty.

The Chinese development process was not guided by a single rigid ideology. Rather, pragmatism replaced ideology as the key to economic development.

The distinct ability of the Chinese government to progressively identify constructive aspects of the numerous theories and ideologies which have been tried elsewhere and espouse them into policy plans that can be sustained country-wide over regions and provinces with different natural, economic, ecological, and socio-ethnic diversity has contributed to its growth.

Its government formulates Five-Year Development Plans and uses centralised and decentralised institutions to ensure that its policies are effectively delivered in the different geographical locations covering a population of about 1.3 billion.

The leadership in the institutions is visionary, motivated and allows for an orderly transition and succession system in governance that facilitates continuity in the implementation of policies.

This is rare for Africa where transitional political processes are often punctuated by periods of instability, internal upheavals, and civil wars.

This has been a cause of Africa’s undoing after decolonisation because abrupt and unnecessary regime change can curtail development. It can also affect the continuity of policies.

The absence of effective regional institutions with the executive authority and power to enforce decisions agreed at regional and continental level has curtailed continental integration. The failure to effectively coordinate policies and to provide adequate funding for regional programmes has worsened the problem.

China, on the other hand, also decentralised its fiscal policies to allow local governments to be innovative in revenue generation.

Local and international experts evaluate policies to assess their effectiveness.

Can this not be a valuable lesson to Africa’s often disjointed, protracted and fragmented regional policy control and coordination?

Significant role for think tanks

China also prioritises research and development in its Five Year Plans and budgets. The current 12th FYP prioritises education, science and technology by supporting them through financing, preferential taxation and domestic incentives. In addition, the country has a 15-year Science and Technology Plan (2006-2020), its blueprint for science.

Focus on research has led to numerous inventions and innovations in industry and agriculture protected by intellectual property rights regulations. The IP regulations have resulted in the number of patents growing from 22,000 in 1990 to 62,274 in 2011, according to the 2012 China Statistical Yearbook.

Research reduces the country’s dependence on foreign technology and offers incentives for a new generation of inventors.

China also owes its development to the contribution of policy research institutions, or think tanks in policy analysis and implementation.

Think tanks in China play a significant role in bridging the gap between knowledge and policy through research and analytical work. The Chinese government’s engagement with think tanks is different from most African countries where there is little progressive interaction between policymakers and researchers. Think tanks in China are taken seriously and are referred to as the “internal brain” of the government.

The result is that the think tanks have become home to a critical mass of researchers, thereby sustaining knowledge-based policy governance in China.

By 2008, China was reported to have 2,500 think tanks employing 35,000 researchers. China acknowledges and incorporates the role of think tanks, maintaining a close working relationship and incorporating their findings into public policies and national development plans.

Africa can learn from this by prioritising research and development in order to deepen and widen regional integration to ultimately improve the living standards of its people.

  • This article is an edited version of a policy discussion paper originally published by Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Chinese Studies. The China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Programme: Forum on China-Africa Co-operation and other organisations provided the funding for the research. It is published here with the permission of the author.

A link to the paper, Drawing Lessons for African Integration from Accelerated Development in China, is provided on the right.

Clayton Hazvinei Vhumbunu is an associate researcher at the Institute of China-Africa Studies in Southern Africa based in Harare, Zimbabwe.