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China’s ‘palate democracy’ may not be to Africa’s taste

China has lessons worth learning, but governance without elections and choice of ruling party isn’t one of them.

Institute for Security Studies (ISS)



China’s government likes to describe its economic system as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. Which sounds a bit like a euphemism for ‘state capitalism’. One doesn’t hear Chinese officials referring to their country’s political system as ‘democracy with Chinese characteristics’. But that would be an adequate label for the descriptions some Chinese officials provide.

This week Professor Fang Ning, Deputy Director of the Institute of Political Science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), coined the expression ‘palate democracy’ to characterise China’s political system.

To explain this he offered a gastronomic analogy. Western democracies were like Western restaurants where you could order only one style of food – e.g. pizzas in Italy – in each, he explained. Chinese restaurants by comparison offered a variety of cuisines. Likewise the Chinese political system offers a variety of democracies for its people to choose from, to suit every taste.

Maybe something got lost in translation because on the face of it, the analogy suggests the Chinese have greater political choice than Westerners, which seems rather far off the mark. Certainly the one thing not on the menu at the Chinese political restaurant is any party but the Chinese Communist Party (CPC).


It’s tempting for Africa, still stuck in deep poverty and inequality, to seek inspiration from China

Put less analogously, however, Fang says Chinese democracy is about adapting the form of democracy to the underlying development needs. It’s about consultation and consensus, about consulting different groups for different purposes. By comparison, Western-style elections lock people into one party and government for five years. Quite a few South Africans in the room seemed to agree with him.

Fang was speaking at a seminar in Pretoria on ‘Governance and socioeconomic development in China and Africa’, organised by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council and the China-Africa Institute (CAI) based in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced China’s intention to establish the CAI at the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) last year and the institute was launched in April 2019.

‘The CAI aims to enhance mutual learning between Chinese and African civilisations and to strengthen exchanges of their experience in governance and development to provide intellectual support for the Belt and Road construction collaboration and to build the China-Africa community with a shared future,’ the Chinese embassy in Pretoria said. The CAI is sponsored by CASS, the well-known centre of Chinese study about Africa.

As in all programmes of ‘cooperation’ between Africa and the rest of the world, mutuality was emphasised. But it would appear that in fact China’s aim for this initiative is mainly to improve governance in Africa. And that in turn is aimed mainly at facilitating the Belt and Road Initiative. This ambitious project sets out to construct a modern Silk Road, by land and by sea – a twin-pronged development corridor connecting China to Europe via Africa and central Asia.

China’s ambassador to South Africa Lin Songtian said at the seminar that there were two questions to answer: Where are China and Africa going? And what’s the best way of getting there?


One thing not on the political menu in China is any party but the Chinese Communist Party

It’s clear that Africa would love to get to the same place China has reached today via its phenomenal economic growth over the past 40 years. That has taken it from GDP per capita of US$35 a year in 1949 when the CPC took over the government, to US$156 a year in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping began his ‘opening up’ economic reforms, to the current US$10 000 a year.

In 1978, more than 97% of Chinese lived in poverty; now more than 97% had escaped from poverty, Lin said. So it’s obviously tempting for African countries, still stuck in deep poverty, inequality and unemployment, to seek inspiration from China. To add appeal, Chinese officials never stop reminding African leaders and pundits that they have no history of colonialism in Africa, and therefore should be trusted with their advice.

Lin has been quite critical in the past about the South African government’s management of state-owned enterprises. He said at the seminar that despite an abundance of natural and human resources in the country and Africa as a whole, poverty remained a major problem. Why? Governance was the answer, he suggested, both to China’s success and Africa’s failure.

That may be true but it’s one thing for China to offer Africa lessons in better governance – if that means more effective and less corrupt government to underpin more productive economies. It’s quite another to suggest that Chinese palate democracy, with no elections and no choice of governing party, is necessarily the best route to such improved governance for African countries.

How China has managed to grow so stupendously is something of a mystery, but there are possible explanations other than its political system – for instance its deep culture, nourished over thousands of years. The formula doesn’t necessarily translate well into Africa.


Africa has a lot to learn from China about efficient administration, clean government and hard work

In The future of democracy in Africa, Jakkie Cilliers, Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies, examined the complex relationship between democracy and development on the continent. Although he found that the many ersatz (my word) democracies in Africa had done little or nothing for development, real democracy did tend to boost development, especially in countries already further up the development path.

Likewise in their book Democracy Works: Rewiring Politics to Africa’s Advantage, Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Tendai Biti and Jeffrey Herbst found after a survey of African governments that real democracy – not just regular elections but also the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, and leadership in government and civil society – did empirically correlate with greater economic growth and development.

A Westerner noted after the seminar this week that, ‘Those Chinese are so incredibly good at soft diplomacy and adapting their message. Here they speak about communism, socialism and anti-colonialism to attract their prey. And in more liberal contexts, they would put forward free trade and free markets. Obviously China struggles with implementing the Belt and Road Initiative in Africa because of bad governance, so they create an institute to research about it. How clever!’

Indeed. And Africa surely does have a lot to learn from China about efficient administration, clean government, hard work, even sacrificing oneself to the common good (as Lin proposed) – but not to the point of erasing the individual altogether. And not in favour of palate democracy where everything on the menu is fine – as long as it’s always the same ruling party.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant