By David Monyae
China is embarking on a new path. Having eradicated the scourge of extreme poverty among its people and having successfully built a moderately prosperous society, Beijing, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party of China, is now moving towards high-quality development under the banner of “Common Prosperity”.
The concept of common prosperity was popularised and first articulated at length by President Xi in the latter part of last year as the guiding vision and strategy which will underpin the building of a great modern socialist country, also known as “modernisation with Chinese characteristics”.
The central thrust of the common prosperity concept is the promotion of all-round human development and the reduction of growing socio-economic inequalities in Chinese society. In short, common prosperity seeks to create conditions for every one of the 1.4 billion Chinese people to thrive in their chosen fields and make a meaningful contribution towards the development of China.
This article compares China’s “Common Prosperity” concept and Africa’s ubuntu philosophy and discusses how their ideological and cultural compatibility may further reinforce the Sino-African partnership.
In an essay titled “To Firmly Drive Common Prosperity”, President Xi acknowledged that while the fight against extreme poverty has been won, China still faces the challenge of unequal development between urban and rural regions and the widening gap in income distribution between the poor and the rich.
Despite its growth rate averaging over 9% per annum in the last 40 years, China still has a Gini coefficient of 38.5%, which indicates high levels of inequality.
People living in urban areas are reported to earn 2.5 times more than rural dwellers. This means that China’s tremendous economic growth has not been shared by the whole population. Therefore, common prosperity is the preferred strategy to address these challenges.
According to President Xi, “common prosperity is an essential requirement of socialism, is the common prosperity of all people, in their material, spiritual and moral lives”.
The essay promises that by the middle of the 21st century, common prosperity would have been achieved, and the inequalities in income and consumption levels would have been substantially reduced. Some of the principles that will guide the implementation of the common prosperity ideal include industriousness and innovation, adherence to the basic economic system, scientific public policy, and a gradual and orderly process.
The development of human capital and participatory development will ensure high-quality development as envisioned under common prosperity. Public enterprises will continue to play an important role in the economy, while legitimate private enterprises will be allowed to flourish.
Moreover, the rich are called upon to help those who are not yet rich. The message is getting through to the rich who donated billions of dollars to charitable causes last year.
While emphasising the need for building people’s livelihoods, President Xi cautioned that the government could not do everything and welfare policies would not be used to cushion lazy people. Thus, the essence of common prosperity is in giving people a fair opportunity to improve their lives through honest work. The acquisition of illegal wealth will not be tolerated.
Inclusive development, expansion of the middle class, improved access to quality public services for the poor (education, health care, housing and income grants), regulation of high incomes (progressive tax reform) to limit social polarisation and inequality will form some of the priority areas under common prosperity.
Moreover, common prosperity will entail mass education on patriotism and collectivism while also giving special attention to farmers and rural areas who have been largely left behind in China’s economic growth story.
Through common prosperity, China seeks to pursue a more just development path guided by moral values and a practical programme of action.
China’s vision of common prosperity has a lot in common with Africa’s culture and ideology of ubuntu and therefore creates an impetus for cementing Sino-African relations.
Africa also faces the same challenges of inequality, poverty and corruption. The principles of ubuntu such as communality, dignity, equality, social justice, compassion, solidarity and morality are also espoused under the common prosperity vision. Ubuntu has long constituted the organising principle of African societies and forms the moral and ideological basis for pan-Africanism.
Just like China’s common prosperity, ubuntu is guided by the spirit of community, togetherness and socialism. Ubuntu abhors ill-gotten wealth and excessive social inequalities while advocating a just distribution and allocation of resources throughout society.
As argued by the late former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa, there is no moral justification for excessive socio-economic inequalities as they are the result of the exploitation of man by man. Through excessive income regulation and diligent scrutiny of illegal wealth acquisition, China’s common prosperity is identical to ubuntu in its denunciation of excessive wealth as an obstacle to social progress.
Nyerere argued that the African social system provided adequate social safety nets to protect people from falling into poverty by ensuring that their basic needs, such as food and shelter, were catered for. Hence both common prosperity and ubuntu are fundamentally distributive welfare programmes that seek to uplift and protect the poor.
Moreover, both philosophies embrace and emphasise the spirit and value of hard work. As Nyerere declared: “There is no such thing as socialism without work.” The social safety nets and welfare programmes that are part of ubuntu and common prosperity are not a substitute for working. Every member of society will have to work for their livelihood. The social system should create the circumstances under which their work can bear fruit.
The values of collectivism and compassion form a critical component in China’s common prosperity and Africa’s ubuntu. Further, the two philosophies share a cautionary approach to the Western free market system. China’s common prosperity is meant to mitigate and redress some of the adverse effects of the free market system, such as excessive concentration of wealth and monopolistic tendencies, in some of the economic sectors which have intensified social polarisation.
Ubuntu is also critical of the individualistic and profit-driven free market system that thrives on exploitation and greed, preferring a collective ownership system that is underpinned by moral and ethical principles.
At the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation last year, China and Africa committed to building a China-Africa Community with a shared future. The compatibility of China’s common prosperity with Africa’s cultural ideology of ubuntu provides a shared foundation for a stronger Sino-African alliance.
Sharing the same value systems and disillusioned by the failures of the free market system, China and Africa can work together to chart a new alternative to the wanton hegemony of liberal capitalism.
Africa has been trying to implement the free market system for decades, but it has failed to yield sustainable growth rates, lower socio-economic inequality, and reduce poverty.
The common prosperity ideal espoused by President Xi offers Africa and the world an opportunity to change course from liberal capitalism.
* David Monyae is director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed here may not necessarily be that of the IOL.