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African countries should look at the post-Cold War experiences of China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore ‘to produce our own intellectual infrastructure for development and progress with freedom and dignity’, writes Okello Oculi.

‘All roads lead to China’, Alan Paton may be chuckling from a place that Professor Ali Mazrui calls ‘After Africa’. The global drama of leaders of ‘developed democracies’ and old global riches (which are wracked by the crisis of unemployment and impoverishment), running to China and India in search of markets, would remind Alan Paton of his words in his book ‘Africa: Cry the Beloved Country’. Television screens showed Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron sprinting to China as if to compete for television screens with Barack Obama, who was dancing with India’s toddlers. The Chinese chipped in with their own competition, with Obama shuttling to Indonesia, with their own hosting of leaders of ‘Portuguese-speaking countries’, whose African sector a Chinese minister of trade told condescendingly that China would help to ‘pull them out of poverty’ – a brutally uncouth thing to say to visitors draped in sovereignty and fashionable European suits.

The Chinese President Hu Jintao struggled to hide from his face surging waves of historical memories that once proclaimed China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, the centre of the world to whom barbarians in Asia, Europe and the Americas must bow. For minds nurtured during the mind-wars of the Cold War between communism and capitalism (as anchored in Moscow and Washington respectively), it is disorienting to see that a China which under Mao Zedung’s communist rule was abused as a land of poverty and starvation is now the one to whom the United States is indebted in trillions of dollars, and whom Obama is now loudly cursing for protecting its industries by giving them huge subsidies as production costs and internal markets. This Chinese sin was once condoned when Japan used it most tenaciously and successfully for rebuilding a post-Second World War economy to show other Asian peoples that capitalism was better than communism.

Since post-colonial Africa’s independence was many times cynically wrecked by military coups and invasions sponsored by one of the Cold War pugilists, we are entitled to ask why the communism of China has turned out to be so powerful that Euro-American democracy is rushing there for salvation. It is a compelling question considering that China also adamantly insists (with the former Soviet Union, Cuba and North Vietnam), that it has its own version of democracy. That democracy they insist is anchored inside the stomach and mind of every citizen. It is a democracy that insists that the state and the community must make sure that each citizen does not go to sleep at night on an empty stomach and empty intellect. That view of democracy and human rights forced its themes into the haloed offices of the United Nations Development Fund under the title of a commitment to promoting a ‘human development index’.

I recall my shock at revelations by a BBC documentary on how China has invested heavily in the intellectual and aesthetic education of its children and youths in secondary and primary schools. With the Cold War over, the BBC was now allowing me to benefit from a ‘truth dividend’ about how the state in China looks after its people. Those television pictures and their accompanying commentaries prepared me for the horrific 2010 drama of China’s soldiers providing relief to victims of devastating earthquakes with touching compassion, sensitivity and respect for the dignity of the people. Those were hints at what constituted China’s version of a socialist democracy. If the Cold War had still been raging, I would not have had eyes in my mind opened that way.

David Cameron ran to China to plead for China to open pocket books of their 1.3 billion people so that they can buy goods manufactured by machines, robots and workers after he had just taken money for purchasing both British and goods imported from China away from millions of British workers and pensioners. In Africa this was once the core of colonial economics. In South Africa the racist regime allowed the few whites in the country to have money to buy goods but denied the majority black population jobs and wages above subsistence level. Obama, for his part, left behind a horrendous electoral defeat (for his Democratic Party in the federal legislature) due to a combination of racist bile and massive unemployment inherited from the George W. Bush years. He too wanted China to gulp American exports, and thereby ‘create jobs’ for Americans.The triumphant Tea Party racists and Republicans he had left behind had crippled his efforts to give widespread purchasing power to Americans. They even called him an evil importer of ‘socialism’ to America. Socialism and its Chinese form of democracy are apparently good if they enable Chinese consumption of American goods, but not when they enable China to sell goods to Americans. There are here shades of the human right of the Chinese to buy American products. Chinese feet peddling millions of bicycles (in rivers of human bodies along streets of Chinese cities) are seen as anti-human rights, while rivers of Beijing residents inside imported and locally manufactured American cars is seen as pro-human rights. These paradoxes must encourage us to ask questions about terms like ‘free world’, and even ‘human rights’, used as terms of insults thrown at China.

We must also raise the matter of what lessons we can learn from Indonesia’s record with post-colonial governance. In 1964–65 the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) is known to have incited military officers in Indonesia and Brazil to pre-empt possible victories in elections by socialist and communist parties allied to trade unions. In each case hundreds of thousands of these ‘radicals’ were butchered and massacred in cold blood. Brazil is today lucky that socialists like President Lula survived this crime. In Nigeria during this same period, a combination of Israeli fears of Tafawa Balewa and Ahmadu Bello linking up with Arab supporters of Palestine, South Africa’s Boers being afraid of a strong Nigeria backing anti-apartheid regimes from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to South West Africa (now Namibia) and French leaders afraid of the Guinea-virus linking up with a muscular Nigeria to throw them out of their French neocolonies may have combined to be alarmed that the rivalry through competitive development between Nigeria’s three regions was bound to produce a regional power if not quickly sabotaged with an induced military coup. Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia were regional powers that could not be allowed to become independent rogues on the global Cold War scene.

Of the three countries, Indonesia had the luck of having watched Japan, as an Asian country that had used its own road to modernity, become a power that defeated feudal Russia in a hot war and humiliated Spain, Holland, France and Britain by military defeats and driving them out of their colonies in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia and elsewhere in the region. It took America’s power to beat Japan. Despite the despicably brutal treatment they met in the hands of their Japanese ‘liberators’, Japan’s ‘Asian model’ of using local political will power to build a nationalist capitalism had caught on in Indonesia. The country’s second president, General Suharto, was at his fall accused of ‘crony capitalism’, but his critics admit that he did not ruin Indonesia by exporting its oil money to private bank accounts held outside Indonesia. His regime continued Indonesia’s first president Sukarno’s policy of running a modern political governance and economy on an education system that used a locally invented post-independence national language to run it. It is important to emphasise that Indonesia’s growth was interrupted only by Suharto’s military coup, but the generals who took over the state followed the CIA script of creating a national development that does not make socialist rule attractive to alternative challengers for power.

Indonesia’s generals had in Japan’s history a non-Western model to guide development and be a focus for racial pride. They also worked with their own version of democracy. As part of the dividend of truth that the end of the Cold War opens up, we must now openly examine both the experiences of China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to chart Africa’s safari, and critically pick through the new language of global economic diplomacy used by major actors. This must guide our questing the possibility of a democracy of poverty being dangled at Africa at a moment in history when we should be vigorously picking idea-seeds from India, China, Brazil, Japan and Vietnam to produce our own intellectual infrastructure for development and progress with freedom and dignity.


* Okello Oculi is the executive director of the Africa Vision 525 Initiative.
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