Like the rest of the world, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is battling the negative effects of colliding crises. Chief among these crises are the Covid-19 health and economic pandemics, deglobalisation from unipolarism, and neutering of multilateral organisations.
The threat of nuclear war from the Russia-Ukraine imbroglio has exacerbated these colliding crises further by hurting global economic growth and driving up prices for basic consumer goods like food and energy.
In this maelstrom of both man-made and natural crises, one question that comes up concerns identifying the response of the world’s second largest economy. The PRC’s strategic response – namely the New Development Philosophy (NDP) – is noteworthy for its clarity, relevance and transparency. What are its constituent elements and why should we be interested to know about it in South Africa?
China’s NDP was placed forward in 2015 by President Xi Jinping and has been re-emphasised recently to address decisively with present interruptions to international trade, climate vulnerability, introverted national policies and persistent conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
In essence, the NDP’s objectives are anchored in innovation to give China a competitive advantage, balance inequalities between the country’s regions and social groups, forge harmony between nature and humanity, and continue to promote common prosperity for all.
In addition, there is an identified need to build a “dual circulation” economy whereby the domestic Chinese market is reinforced with international market forces.
The cumulative results of the NDP are evident in the PRC relatively withstanding the effects of Covid-19 and registering, in comparison with other countries, positive growth in 2020 and 2021 which saw an average GDP growth of more than 5%. In turn, this has had a sizeable stabilising impact and influence on the global economy sorely requiring openness and shared material benefits to offset the headwinds of disrupted global industrial and supply chains.
In practical terms, China’s continued vanguard of international trade and co-operation in Africa has seen it offering project assistance in various areas of socio-economic development.
These include in Africa the joint construction of 100 ports, 10 000km of railways, 100 000km of roads and 1 000 bridges. The link of the NDP to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), during the height of the coronavirus when most countries closed their borders, China was an economic mainstay in Europe. For one, the China-Europe freight train remained on operational trek throughout 2021 to transport a total of 15 183 freight train trips.
As South Africa battles to rebuild its infrastructure arteries as a result of the KwaZulu-Natal floods, we look to the PRC for inspiration and assistance to rebuild back better climate-resilient roads, ports, bridges and water canals. This emergency call is made, to underline China’s NDP, given the uncharacteristic praise made by Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the transparent and progressive development path pursued by China. In her own words, she is on record stating that “China achieved a truly remarkable recovery”, and as such, this country remains “a vital engine for global growth, taking strong actions to support high-quality growth will help not only China, but the world”.
Of course, the NDP is guided by China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025), which is a plan of action which has specific targets of growing the economy by more than 6%, creating 11 million urban jobs, increase grain production by 6 million tons, reduce by about 3% energy consumption per unit of GDP, and usher in a new stage in China’s peaceful rise. These targets, on their own, build on the 40-year reform and opening up period which has positioned China as the world’s second-largest economy, an incontestable industrial powerhouse and the world’s largest holder of foreign exchange reserves.
Additionally, these targets are living proof and a lesson for the Republic of South Africa (RSA) of what is possible when there is decisive executive leadership, policy certainty, legislative continuity, bureaucratic support, and grassroots support to achieve common prosperity and socio-economic rights. This has seen China becoming a moderately prosperous socialist country with 60% urban population and 400 million middle-class citizens.
It is not inconceivable for RSA to try and equal these human development indexes. In the words of President Xi, what propels his leadership and programmes is the basic understanding that “principles are precursors to actions” and what is more, “it is these principles that ultimately determine the effectiveness of development and its success or failure”. These words uttered on October 29, 2015, are not instance of empty rhetoric. As far back as November 15, 2012, at the Standing Committee of 18 Central Committee Political Bureau, President Xi stressed that at heart, “the people yearn for a better life, our goal is to help them achieve it, and we must unswervingly follow the path of common prosperity”.
As RSA navigates treacherous waters of a post-pandemic period and July 2021 civil unrest in KZN and Gauteng plus the 2022 KZN floods, quite clearly something has to change in the governing party’s attitudes and policy implementation strategy. There has to be iron will determination to implement policies and programmes, working with the private sector and civil society, national plans of actions such as the 2012 National Development Plan (NDP), the 2020 Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Programme (ERRP) and in RSA’s economic engine province, the Growing Gauteng Together 2030 (GGT2030).
China’s NDP is remarkable when contrasted with the shortcomings of the pre-1990 Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed because the governing party became detached from its historical mission and from the ordinary people by focusing on its own party interests.
Unfortunately, this fate is unfolding and occupying RSA’s governing party and its internecine leadership contests that are removed from bettering the lives of all South Africa citizens and communities. As a result, wealth inequality grows between people, between and within the urban and rural areas, and people’s general well-being is compromised which, in turn, leads to high incidents of crime, anomie, service delivery protests, and distrust between leaders and the led. Therefore, China’s NDP is commendable in realising in word and deed the Chinese maxim that: “As vast as heaven and earth may be, the people must always come first”.
Tembe is a Sinologist and founder of SELE Encounters.