People’s Republic of China at 70 and the Challenge of Global Leadership: the Lessons for Africa

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By Bola A. Akinterinwa

The 70th Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was celebrated in Nigeria on Sunday, 22nd September, 2019, instead of October 1, 2019, at the Oriental Hotel, Lekki, Phase I. The non-celebration of the National Day of the PRC on October 1st is simply in due respect to their host country, Nigeria, which also has October 1 as her National Day. Holding the Chinese day before October 1st gives room for the Chinese delegation to Nigeria to take active part in the celebration of Nigeria’s own National Day. The celebration of Chinese National Day on other days also explains in part why Sino-Nigerian relations are always witnessing increasing efforts at a warm rapprochement.

Four other factors also explain the rapprochement: Third World mentality, population factor, shared foreign policy posture, and economic interests. As regards, Third World mentality, Beijing authorities never consider their country as a developed one, but as a developing State, in fact, as the biggest developing country in the world, and by so consideration, China is presented as belonging to the Third World.

It is important to note at this juncture the hostility of the United States to this Chinese claim of being a developing country. US President Donald Trump complained at the ongoing 74th United Nations General Assembly about what he called China’s ‘massive market barriers,’ practice of products dumping, as well as forced technology transfers. He was particularly embittered by the fact that the World Trade Organisation failed to compel China to liberalise. In asking for drastic changes to the international trade system, President Trump advised that China, the second biggest economy in the world, ‘should not be allowed to declare itself a developing country at the expense of others.’

Whether China is or not a developing country will remain for a long time a matter of debate. What is indisputable, and as made known to the world by the Chinese Consul General of the People’s Republic of China to Nigeria, Chu Maoming, himself, is that ‘after 70 years of development, China today stands at a new historical starting point. China’s per capita GDP comes to $10,000 from less than $100, and the average life expectancy in China comes to 77 from 35. Especially since China started its reform and opening-up in 1978, China’s GDP has averaged an annual growth rate of around 9.5%, and more than 700 million Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty.’

‘Beyond that,’ he further submitted, ‘as the second largest economy, the largest industrial producer and the largest trader of goods in today’s world, China contributed over 30% of the global economic growth over the recent years. Today, China enjoys a harmonious society, prosperous economy and rapidly advancing science and technology, while the Chinese people enjoy a happy life that they dreamed for generations. Just as H.E. President Xi Jinping said, today, we are closer to, more confident in, and more capable of making the goal of national rejuvenation a reality than ever before.’

On a more serious note, is there really any country that is not developing or that has stopped its development process? The mere fact that some criteria are put in place to differentiate between and among levels of development in international relations does not imply that there is a crescendo beyond which no country can go in the continuum of development ladder. Consequently, China cannot be wrong by claiming to be developing. It is precisely the manifestation of the factor of ‘developing’ that the Chinese Consul General has referred to in his statement above.

And true, when China is compared with Nigeria and many other countries put under the Third World categorisation, there is no disputing the fact that China is far more developed than all other countries in the group. China is more economically developed. China truly has the second biggest economy after the United States as at today. In this regard, Nigeria and China have this factor of big economy in common, as Nigeria has the biggest economy in continental Africa and this provides a strong basis to attract one another.

What is also important about China, considered as a developing country or as having a bigger economy than that of Nigeria, is that no one believes or sees China as an imperialist. China is generally seen as the chief proponent of win-win policies in its economic cooperation programmes with Africa. Even where suspicions of Chinese imperialism do exist, African leaders generally believe that they are gaining from it. This observation is particularly true at the level of Nigeria.

Like Third World mentality, population serves as another major dynamic of Sino-Nigerian rapprochement. China has the biggest population in the world. The population of China was put at 1,433.783, 686 as at Monday, September 23rd, 2019, based on Worldometers elaboration of the latest United Nations data (vide China Population (2019) – Worldometers https://www.worldometers.info> china-p).

Nigeria has the biggest population in Africa. Policy makers have always advised that lessons be drawn from how the Chinese government has been able to manage its big population. Nigeria’s population, as also provided by the Worldometers, is 202, 139,745 people on the basis of current United Nations data as at September 23rd, 2019. With this, Nigeria represents 2.61% of total global population.

A third dynamic is special economic interest. Its foundation was laid during the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, especially in the mid-2000s, when he specifically asked his Chinese counterpart to take Nigeria along when the Chinese would be going to the space again. As explicated by Chief Obasanjo, ‘this twenty-first century is the century for China to lead the world. And when you are leading the world, we want to be close behind you. When you are going to the moon, we don’t want to be left behind.’

Former President Olusegun Obasanjo made this comment on a lighter mood when addressing China’s President Hu Jintao in Abuja, in April 2006. The statement was made, just to appreciate the level of development of the Chinese. It was in light of this appreciation that he opened widely Nigerian doors to the Chinese and that various economic cooperation agreements were done. Today, the Chinese see Nigeria as a second home in Africa (for details, vide Bola A. Akinterinwa and Ogaba D. Oche, eds., Nigeria-China Dialogue Series: Issues in Contemporary China-Africa Relations, No. 1: NIIA and CICIR, August 5-9, 2013, 197 pp).

Chinese economic investments are not only flourishing, but are also competing well with those of the traditional partners of Nigeria. Chinese investments are in the critical areas of the economy. There is also a Sino-Nigerian entente on the use of their national currencies for bilateral trade. The Chinese are investing in the infrastructural sector. The construction of the railway lines is being handled by the Chinese. The airport in Abuja is currently being refurbished, with new structures also put in place. The accommodation being given to the Chinese in Africa, and particularly in Nigeria, is precisely what is giving the traditional allies of Nigeria sleepless nights.

A fourth major dynamic, and perhaps most important, of the rapprochement is shared foreign policy interests. Nigeria is on record to be against the pre-1949 Kuomintang government and to have spear-headed the recognition and acceptance of China at the United Nations. And perhaps more significantly, Nigeria took the principled stand that the People’s Republic of China has sovereignty over Taiwan and Hong Kong. Even though Taiwan has re-united with mainland China, Hong Kong has not. The policy of Beijing is that Hong Kong can maintain its western capitalist system but it must remain an inseparable part of mainland China, hence, the official policy of One China, Two systems. In fact, in a joint communiqué signed in 2006 by China and Nigeria, it was stated that Beijing was ‘the only legitimate government representing the whole of China and Taiwan is an unalienable part of its territory.’ This was, and is still, the official position Nigeria has always adopted, and this has always gladdened the hearts of the Beijing authorities. The gladness was partly reflected in the mania of celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in Nigeria.

Another important dynamic of the rapprochement is the place of ‘vacuum-created politics.’ Following Nigeria’s civil war, international politics was vehemently against military dictatorship in Africa, and particularly, in Nigeria in the period from 1970 to 1998. The hostility of the Western world created a vacuum of opportunity for the Chinese to occupy, to the extent that the relationship led to Nigeria becoming an important source of oil import for China.
In the same vein, when the United States and its allies hesitated to give assistance to Nigeria in fighting the insurgents in the Niger Delta region, the Government of Nigeria took advantage of that to deepen ties with China, leading to the supply of equipment, arms, training and limited technology transfer. It should be recalled here that Nigeria and China did an agreement on the development of communications and space technology, the cost of which was put at $311 million.

It should also not be forgotten that it was thanks to China that Nigeria was able to launch her communications satellite (NigComSat-1 in 2007.
The value of Sino-Nigerian trade increased from $384 million in 1998 to US 3 billion in 2006. The volume of the trade amounted to US$7.8 billion in 2010. This represented more than 100% increase in value. There were not less than 40 Chinese official development finance projects in the period from 2000 through 2011 in Nigeria, when Nigeria became the 4th biggest trading partner of China in Africa.

In essence, all the identified foregoing dynamics are best summed up in a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, which revealed that 80% of Nigerians view Chinese influence positively. Only 10% considered it negatively, thus making Nigeria the most-pro-Chinese in the world. Why wouldn’t the Chinese be quite happy about this? Why would the Chinese Consul General not be in a very happy mood to deliver a new message of hope and better days to come?

Chu Maoming’s Message
The speech of the Consul General of the People’s Republic of China, Chu Maoming, was an important dimension of the celebration. He tried to draw public attention to the various efforts at national development, self-reappraisals, and how the Chinese face daunting development challenges with increasing commitment, This is a source of happiness in itself. It is therefore not surprising that Mr. Chu Maoming not only warmly welcomed all the distinguished guests and friends present, but also invited all of them ‘to share our (Chinese) joy in celebrating this occasion,’ for one good reason: ‘this festive occasion provides us with a good opportunity to walk through the 70 years of the People’s Republic of China and to embrace the coming of the Chinese dream of great national rejuvenation.’
He underscored the point that ‘on 1st October 1949, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Chinese people put an end to the century of wars and humiliation after decades of heroic struggles, and established the People’s Republic of China.’ This development enabled the 5,000-year-old ancient civilization to embark on ‘a new and promising journey of development’

He recalled how the Chinese people rallied together in their socialist. revolution following the First National People’s Congress of 1954, and leading to the establishment of socialism as the basic system of government. In the words of Mr. Maoming, the socialist construction ‘laid down the fundamental political preconditions and institutional foundations for all development and progress in contemporary China.’ It also laid down a solid foundation for China’s development, prosperity, and strength and the Chinese people’s affluence.’

And perhaps more importantly, he laid emphasis on the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee in 1978, which prompted the launching of the reform and opening-up to the world, the 18th National Congress in 2012, when the CPC rallied the Chinese People and began to build a moderately prosperous society in all respects, and adoption of the principle of openness and the launching of the Belt and Road Initiative. Above all, the Chinese are now simply working ‘to build an open world economy and a community of shared future for humanity, which guides the socialism with Chinese characteristics entering into a new era.’

Specifically on Nigeria-China bilateral cooperation and understanding, the Consul General has noted that ‘bilateral trade reached $8.68 billion from January to June 2019 with 20.7% percent year-on-year growth. China is currently Nigeria’s largest sources of imports and second largest trading partner. A large number of cooperative projects are vigorously promoted by both sides, such as the Zungeru Hydropower Plant, Mambilla Power Project, Lekki Deep Seaport, Lagos-Calabar coastal railway line, etc. With more and more Nigerian students studying in China under the sponsorship of the Chinese government scholarship, China has also set up two Confucius Institutes in Nigeria…’
With this type of developments, there is no reason why the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China should not be specially celebrated in Nigeria and this brings us to another dimension of the event: manifestations of citizen diplomacy.

The Aspects of Citizen Diplomacy
One aspect of Chinese relationship with Africa, and particularly with Nigeria, is the adoption of citizen diplomacy, which is hardly noticed, but always clearly shown during any Chinese-organised social events. The celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China provides a good illustration of this observation. First, the National Anthems of both Nigeria and China were rendered by a group of Nigerians and Chinese, numbering 45 and organised into three rows of 15 people.

It was quite gladdening to see Nigerians demonstrating a mastery of the Chinese language and for Chinese similarly singing joyfully Nigeria’s anthem. One factor responsible for this might be the presence of the Confucius centre at the University of Lagos and another in Anambra State. The first cultural performance drew attention to the extent of cultural harmony and understanding. It also suggested that the prospects of citizen diplomacy, especially with the increasing exchanges between the Nigeria-China Friendship Association (NICAF) and its Chinese counterparts, are quite bright.

The second performance, entitled, ‘Day of Happening,’ was by a group of Nigerians with very colourful umbrella and dancing and making artistic displays to the admiration of the audience. The same is true of the other five performances. All the guests, and particularly the Nigerian guests, were thrilled. Laughter here, clapping there. The Chinese were inwardly beating their chests for having arrived to take the mantle of leadership of the world, while Nigerians must be quietly asking why their own setbacks? Are they not praying enough? Are they not fasting enough? Are their prayers acceptable in the sight of God? Whatever is the case, religion is not an issue in seeking to know how China has been able to throw their factors of under-development into the garbage of history. Determination and dint of hard work, objectivity and seriousness of purpose, and unconditional respect for rule of law are some of the main factors behind what China is as at today.

But, at the epicentre of the dynamics of Chinese success in the past 70 years, is the factor of humiliation. It was humiliation arising from the ‘oppression of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucratic capitalism, which weighed like mountains on the backs of the Chinese people.’ As noted by the New Horizon Press in 1990, ‘the history of Old China following the Opium War of 1840, was one in which China was tragically bullied, humiliated and plundered by big powers. This was the prelude to October 1st, 1949 when a new China, the People’s Republic of China, was established and that Chairman Mao Zedong came up with the principles of ‘starting anew,’ ‘putting the house in order before inviting guests’ and ‘leaning to one side.’ The principles required renouncing all the diplomatic ties the Kuomintang Government had established with foreign countries. It is against the background of these three principles that the 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China, and particularly the gradual transition from a land of poverty to that of an emerging el dorado and wealth, should be understood.

But, now that the Chinese have truly arrived in Africa and are making positive impacts, when will the Government and people of Nigeria learn from the Chinese mania of development? If Nigerians can perform well the Chinese way at the 70th Anniversary celebrations, what prevents them from also acquiring the relevant technologies of what they took part in? Without waiting for the time the Chinese will go to the moon and Nigeria will be tied to their aprons, the Government of Nigeria should accept the challenge of strategy to qualify to be taken along by China in its quiet quest for global leadership. Nigeria must seek to become a more strategic and dependable ally, without having to damage existing ties with the traditional partners.

Global leadership is no mean a challenge. Reconciling interests with the traditional allies and with the new special ally, that China really is, cannot but be more challenging. Whatever is the situation, this is a major challenge that has to be addressed constructively. Happy 70th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China.