By Tafadzwa Mundida, JOHANNESBURG, January 22 (The Source) – I have recently come across many advocates of what they call the ‘China model’ or the ‘Beijing model’ of government.
Sometimes, in an effort to prove it is applicable to African countries, it is referred to as the ‘Rwanda model’. The idea seems simple, forget all the noise about democracy and human rights and get ‘strongmen’ in power who put stability and economic development above all else.
I was struck by one article in particular written by Simplice A. Asongu titled Liberal Democracy in Africa Can Wait. This is the most articulate argument I have come across so far in favour of the Beijing model. That said, however, I am not convinced.
To begin with, the title raises a question that is not addressed in the post. The story seems to be in favour of suspending ‘liberal’ democracy, but I am not certain whether the case being made is to explore other types of democracy that are not liberal or to turn away from democracy altogether. This might sound trivial, but it makes a difference. The discussion you have with someone who believes in a different type of democracy is completely different from one who does not believe in democracy at all.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block between me and accepting the Beijing model is the requirement to discard human rights. You see, I like humans. I think they deserve to have rights. Some of this is no doubt self-interest as I happen to be a human. This reminds me of a line by Charlie Brown in the famous Peanuts comic strip: “I like humans, its people I can’t stand.” Humans are these strange creatures, different from the people in your life.
Human rights have come to be seen as this abstract concept that only the intellectual elites care about. It is perceived as the domain of non-governmental organisations and human rights lawyers, nothing to do with the ordinary people. What is often forgotten is who suffers the most when human rights go out of the window. Lawyers and other ‘elites’ tend to be well informed enough to avoid trouble and, if the worst comes to the worst, flee the country.
The ordinary people, alas, are not. When the worst cases of human rights violations in Zimbabwe are talked about, among them Gukurahundi and the violence of the 2008 elections, we don’t talk about how there was great suffering among the ‘elites’. The conversation is not about human rights lawyers, but the ordinary defenceless people. It is important to keep this in mind before we casually talk of tossing out human rights.
To look at it from a different angle, why would you want to be ruled by a government that cannot achieve development unless it abuses its own citizens? Would you want to be part of the citizenry that is abused in pursuit of stability and economic growth? I know what you are thinking. If you were in such a country you would keep your head low and give the government no reason to abuse you. Yet you don’t have to think very hard to come up with scenarios where you would be a victim nonetheless.
What if you are born to a race or tribe the country’s ruler does not like? What if you are born into a religion that the government finds inconvenient? What if you are running a business that is in competition with a government official who decide to remove you? What if you are wrongly suspected of a crime and the police are overzealous in executing their duty?
You might be willing to take the risks above on your shoulders. You might be willing to impose them on your family and fellow citizens in pursuit of economic growth. The second question is, is it necessary? Are there no alternatives of pursuing economic growth?
In fact, is it even the best way of pursuing economic growth? Sure, Rwanda is often quoted as a good model, but on the flip side you have countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa that have been experiencing strong economic growth without adopting the Beijing model. Even Beijing itself is developing at a good pace, but for decades they have been behind the likes of South Korea, Japan and Singapore. In fact, they are still some ways behind. China’s GDP looks more impressive, but once you look at the per capita GDP, they are still catching up. For every China you also have a Cuba or Venezuela.
It is also worth looking at how China grew their economy. They became very competitive at manufacturing due to cheap labour. Can we do the same? Well, we would need to compete with Chinese labour, which is very cheap, so that ship has sailed. We would also need to compete on the technological front as more manufacturing becomes automated, but again they have a head start. The feasible way for Africa to compete is through innovation. There is a concept in economics called permissionless innovation, which is a key explainer for why some of the wealthiest countries in the world got wealthy. You cannot have permissionless innovation when rights are not respected.
Does this model even guarantee political stability? Paul Kagame is given as an example of a good leader, but what happens if the person who succeeds him is incompetent? Besides, there are too many horror stories about those who oppose the president to warrant a try in a country like Zimbabwe.
In a proper democracy, elections would remove him, or if he manages to hold on, term limits would force him to step down. What happens when you have a bad leader and no way to remove them? Social unrest and probably a coup at some point. Not a recipe for prosperity.
What we would likely end up with if we adopt the Beijing model is a country where the people are abused to achieve sub-optimal economic growth and long term political instability.
Tafadzwa Mundida is a 26 year old Zimbabwean working in South Africa in the finance field. Engage with him on Twitter @the_tafadzwa