Lessons from China: focus on development, innovation, spartanism

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What you need to know:

  • China has urbanized drastically in recent years. In only four decades, China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has achieved a level of urbanization that Western countries took two centuries to achieve.

During the recent visit by President Samia Suluhu Hassan to China, I found myself reading this book titled: “Nyerere of Tanzania: The first Decade 1961-1971”, by William Edgett Smith. In its Chapter XXII, it gives us insights into Mwalimu Nyerere’s admiration of the Chinese. According to the author: “Given Nyerere’s pre-occupation with developing a backward country; and given his respect for spartan living, and his abhorrence of luxury, his fascination with China was probably inevitable”.

Mwalimu opposed efforts mainly by Western governments of isolating China and of attempts to block Chinese influence in developing countries. He certainly admired the way the Chinese were running their economy based on public sector enterprises. The Arusha Declaration of 1967 was, to some extent, based on the Chinese model. He also admired political mass mobilization, which saw halaiki, and the long marches to support the Arusha Declaration adopted in the country.

In February 1965, Nyerere made an eight-day state visit to China and was struck by the relevance of Chinese problems to those of Tanzania. He is quoted as assuring his Chinese hosts: “If it were possible for me to lift all the ten million Tanzanians, and bring them to China to see what you have done since liberation, I would do so.

I thought it was unfair that a country like ours should be expecting economic assistance from a country like China which is being extremely economical, while we are not”.

Thereafter, the government took steps to reduce expenditure on official receptions, and, except for four-wheel bush vehicles, go for reasonably-priced cars for government officials.

In 1970, the agreement to build the Tanzania-Zambia Railway (TAZARA) was signed, based on an interest-free loan repayable over a 30 year period beginning in 1983. The list of aid development projects was already long by then and included: the Friendship Textile Mill; a farm implement factory, an experimental farm and a radio transmitter.

That was some five decades ago. Tanzania was talking of 10 million people and China was talking of 700 million; mainly rural-based, in both countries. China has urbanized drastically in recent years. In only four decades, China, a country of 1.4 billion people, has achieved a level of urbanization that Western countries took two centuries to achieve. In this brief period, China transformed itself from a largely rural society to an urban society, improving people’s lives and livelihoods by doing so.

The pace of urbanisation and industrialisation achieved is unprecedented in world history. By 2030, the urban share of the population is expected to reach 70%, amounting to one billion urban residents.

To transform at such an unprecedented rate and scale, China’s urbanisation has relied on three interconnected engines, that is: Large-scale industrialisation, concentrated predominantly in cities in the eastern coastal regions, which has encouraged the concentration of capital, labour, land and energy in urban centres; Marketisation, that is, the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy, which unlocked demand and capacity, with cities acting as growth hubs for internal trade; and, the gradual opening up to international cooperation and trade, which provided access to the capital, technology and export markets needed to fuel urban-industrial expansion.

Urbanisation has brought tremendous prosperity to China – but it has also created problems, including social inequality, resource depletion and environmental degradation. Urbanisation has put enormous pressure on both the natural and built environments. Critical natural resources are being depleted, the overreliance of coal is increasing air pollution and urban populations are becoming more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has realised that the old, industrialisation-driven model of urbanisation can no longer meet its goals for development.

A new, people-oriented model is needed. China’s urban development should become the core driver of “ecological civilisation”, a concept that argues for the importance of promoting green, circular, low-carbon development; minimising interference with and damage to the natural environment; and conserving and making efficient use of land, water, energy and other resources. President Xi Jinping has adopted creating an “ecological civilization” as one of China’s five national goals.

Tanzania, and other developing countries stand to learn a lot from China’s “ecological civilization”, based on serious greening of our rural but particularly so, our urban areas. The latter, must not be so much divorced from nature.

Natural features within urban areas such as rivers, wetlands, and other water bodies need to be preserved and be properly maintained.

There is need for a vision of compact, connected and clean cities that can anchor equitable and sustainable economic development in our countries. Creating such cities requires the alignment of fiscal, energy, housing, land use, and transport policies. These, in turn, call for a National Urban Development Vision and Policy.