How did China become an economic giant in just one generation?

Thursday June 27 2019

Workers at a factory in Jinjiang, in China's eastern Fujian Province, on August 2, 2018. China is a large exporter globally. PHOTO | STRINGER | AFP


Imagine a city where one in eight people die of starvation over three years. Imagine another small town of 36,000 people and a third of its population die of starvation at the same time.

Imagine a teenage orphan killing and eating her four-year-old brother, and another village where 44 out of 45 people die, and the last woman left, in her 60s, goes insane.

Does this sound like fiction or a horror movie? Believe it or not, this is just a fraction of what happened during the great famine of China in 1959 up to the early 1960s, when most of Africa was getting Independence.


The harvest in 1960 was below expectation. Combined with bad government policy on agriculture, the situation was dire. Then there was the fear factor, which is a classic one-talent trait. (The servant who received one talent in the parable of the talents in the Bible buried it, the other two received five and two talents respectively, and invested them). The one-talent servant said that he did not act on the talent because of fear.

The Chinese local government officials, out of fear, did not report the correct figure of the produce for the year. In order to cover this up, the provinces sent their entire produce to the central government.


Fast forward to the present day. Chinese people come to Africa, and some estimates put their population on the continent at over one million. Large companies like Huawei and state-backed corporations like the China Bridge and Road Company are visible across the continent.

When China sneezes, Africa catches a cold. It is therefore important to know how China became the new economic masters of Africa.

Chinese investments and contracts in sub-Saharan Africa were worth $299 billion in 2018, according to the China Investment Global Tracker. In 2018, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to invest a further $60 billion into African nations.


Through smart economic policies, the Chinese did not allow foreign goods to dominate their markets. If foreigners wanted to come in, they came with factories to manufacture those goods in China, thereby providing employment for the people and earnings from the export of the goods.

Since 2009, they have been the largest exporter nation in the world, and have surpassed the US as the largest trading nation in the world.

China’s GDP is second to the US globally. Its economic reforms of 1978 have propelled it to become the manufacturing hub of the world. Remember the China I described in the opening paragraph?

Why is Africa, a continent dominated by one-talent countries, headed in the direction from which China emerged? To make matters worse, we are getting there with the help of the Chinese who know exactly what they are doing.

Nothing destroys like the culture of consumption, and today China is capitalising on that culture across Africa. We have a high appetite for things we don’t produce, and we crave a lifestyle that we cannot afford or support.

We see a China that moved from a one-talent nation to a five-talent nation in one generation, and we see Africa that was a two-talent continent in the 1960s while China was grappling with its one-talent culture. How did China make the transition from one to five talents while Africa went from two to one?