ANTHONY BUTLER: China Express could turn out to be a slow boat
First published in BL PREMIUM
08 JULY 2021
Recent celebrations of the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) tell us something significant about the evolving relationship between SA and the People’s Republic of China.
The facts on the ground do not suggest an ideological love-in is in order. According to Harvard Growth Lab, China is a growing trade partner of SA, taking perhaps 16% of our exports, but it remains far less important than the EU. Even outside the EU, India, Japan and the UK together buy more SA goods and services than China.
SA Reserve Bank data suggests China isn’t a major investor either, accounting for less than 5% of foreign investment stock. Meanwhile, SA accounts for just 0.67% of Chinese exports, ranking alongside countries such as Egypt and Nigeria in their eyes.
China is also quite poor, with only a marginally higher per capita income than SA’s. Even CPC leaders are worried about declining legitimacy as citizens tire of crony capitalism, corruption and the abuse of power by party officials.
But China has been successful at lifting people out of poverty and it has grown fast: SA might become a centre for Chinese businesses in Africa, with Hisense, Huawei, BAIC, Longyuan Power and ICBC already leading the way. Sectors such as tourism and higher education could grow rapidly. The problem is that both countries have “ruling parties” that prefer party-to-party ties to the rule of law.
The Chinese party is not very good at “soft power”. It has an “international liaison” machinery that recruits foreign intellectuals and members of political parties, but less successfully than bourgeois liberal competitors. It is notably coercive in its political practice, its “One China” principle drawing attention to the fact that societies it wishes to destroy, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, are much richer, more successful and more democratic than China.
SA really does not matter much to China. This truth is exemplified by the saga of Xiaomei Havard, who has been mysteriously elevated to an ANC seat in the august chamber of our national legislature. This substandard deployee said that she had made significant donations to ANC-aligned organisations. “Each time it is different. Maybe this time they want R8,000, next time R15,000 … Maybe, from all of them, R2m to R4m.”
The fraternity between the ANC and the CPC was on full display at a recent online celebration of the centenaries of the CPC and the SACP, apparently organised by prominent “businessperson” and newspaper proprietor Iqbal Surve, who told participants he visited China “20 times in the past decade”.
The substance of the consensus between the two parties quickly became clear. The Chinese ambassador to SA, Chen Xiaodong, praised the accomplishments of the CPC at some length, and when their turn came SACP speakers were equally effusive with regard to the CPC’s achievements. They used rhetorical and diplomatic techniques ranging from flattery (former president Kgalema Motlanthe), and fawning (SACP chair Paul Mashatile), to brown-nosing (Solly Mapaila). Sadly, nobody could think of anything good to say about the SACP.
The Chinese ambassador did observe that China-SA diplomatic relations “have made a significant leap from a partnership and a strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership”. Presumably this is a good thing.
But the ambassador implied China is no longer interested in selling us trains. Rather it has entered a “new stage of development”, in which it is “just like a China Express”, with “stronger power and greater capacity that is speeding up on a journey toward new development goals … We welcome SA and other African countries on board the upgraded China Express to achieve win-win co-operation and high-quality common development.”
Now that’s something to look forward to.
Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.