OPINIONISTA: SA has a great deal to learn and adapt from China’s sterling economic development

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Staff Writer

Joined: Nov 2016

Dr Mtheza Mtyopo is the head of the Content and Technical Task Team at the South African BRICS Business Council.

I have just returned from a trade and investment seminar promoting South African businesses in China, as part of a group invited by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. The seminar was held at the Academy for International Business Officials in Beijing.

Suffice it to say, South Africa must start ensuring we always put our best foot forward, or no one will take us seriously. 

Lectures at the seminar covered topics like the governance of China; reforms, regulatory environment, economics and social development across nations, as well as opportunities and challenges. 

We also had excursions to key institutions in Beijing and Xiamen, including the rural area of Zhuba. This is where one felt the visit to learn about agricultural technologies could have been more beneficial to the men and women who work the land in the rural areas of our country. A discussion for another day.

Reforms and economic collaborations
The key takeaways for a developing country like South Africa included reforms and economic collaborations; how the Chinese managed to eradicate poverty in 2021 with a population of 1.4 billion people, and how their state-owned enterprises sustain themselves without any recapitalisation from the government.

China still considers itself as developing — with some of the key economic indicators well above what developed countries have managed to achieve. 

Perhaps the question is, what has led to this success in China? 

China’s remarkable economic transformation over the past few decades can be attributed to its commitment to reform and meritocracy. The reforms started in 1978 with the establishment of the Free Trade Zone to promote investment. They also established eight policies and measurements for promoting exports.

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping coined the phrase: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it can catch the mice”. This simply means that as long as the economy works, it is a good economy. South Africa can benefit from such a pragmatic approach. 

By removing bureaucracy and optimising processes, including reducing red tape, promoting merit-based appointments, and creating an enabling environment that rewards talent and hard work, a culture of innovation would not only attract skilled individuals to the public sector but also drive a culture of efficiency and productivity.

Belt and Road
One of President Xi Jinping’s legacies is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It has been argued that the BRI has been the game-changer in global infrastructure development, linking nations and driving economic partnership.  

We have seen several successful BRI projects such as the China-Europe Railway Express, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Laos-China Railway. 

South Africa can draw inspiration from China’s success in implementing large-scale infrastructure projects. 

From the lessons learnt through the BRI, South Africa can attract foreign investment, improve connectivity within the country and enhance regional integration. 

This can be done by enhancing our port operations to drive efficiency, reviving corridor routes through the railways and highways, unlocking new trade routes, boosting economic growth and creating employment opportunities.

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The Chinese government has actively pursued bilateral investment treaties (BITs) to protect and promote its investments abroad. 

One of the key principles in China is the enhancement of the culture of soft power; this simply means that bad news does not drive self-confidence and speaking badly about your own country does not drive or promote investment. 

South Africa can learn from China’s approach and leverage its own BITs to attract foreign direct investment. We can do this by ensuring a stable and enabling investment environment and encouraging local and foreign investors to contribute to the country’s economic development agenda. 

When we visited the TBEA Group in Beijing, a company that develops clean energy solutions for the global energy industry, my heart sank and I wondered whether we were the first group to visit the institution from South Africa, as surely some of the key lessons to ensure a greater and stable energy supply for our country can be achieved and replicated by working with and learning from the TBEA Group.  

South Africa can improve its infrastructure development and attract much-needed investment. However, it is crucial to adapt lessons from China to South Africa’s unique characteristics, ensuring that they align with the country’s values (some would argue that those don’t even exist), priorities, policies and long-term vision. 

Throughout the seminar, the Chinese continued to preach a common shared future for all humanity, which suggested their availability to assist South Africa. 

With a pragmatic implementation of the policies developed, and partnering with like-minded countries like China, South Africa can pave the way for a better and sustainable future for all. DM


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