The New Silk Road; How Africa will help China build their own identity

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Last week, we concluded our piece by saying that China was growing by leaps and bounds.

Xi Jinping stated that nobody, not even the United States, can bully China anymore. The machine is moving forward with a purpose, speed, ideology and unstoppable power.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI/OBOR – One Belt, One Road) is part of the agenda to strengthen China’s presence, trade, influence and connectivity within the silk road, which begun its silk trade in the Han dynasty in China, two hundred years before Christ.

Why ignite such a trade route again? What is China looking for? Why such huge infrastructure loans? What is China luring them for?

On the one hand, China seems in a hurried race for internationalisation. On the other, this international outlook is hindered by the many years of inward looking policy.

They are not global in themselves yet. The complexity of moving around China, the standards of public utilities and the language barrier gives mixed feelings to any new visitor to China. You feel wanted and rejected at the same time.

China’s search for identity

China’s new ideological dynasty needs identification. China’s growth and interest in the BRI/OBOR may be the necessary and desperate result of their genuine search for identification, which is the glue that will keep them all bound together. Identification makes or breaks a state; everything breaks apart when identification is lost.

In December 1933, during the Seventh International Conference of American States, an important treaty was signed, “the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States”. This treaty eventually became customary international law.

Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention conceptualised the state as an entity with “defined territory, a permanent population, a government and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.” This definition was guided by the declarative theory of statehood, and although it is not perfect, it is what we have.

Identification is the glue that binds

Territory, population and government are bound together by ‘identification’. Identification does not happen by chance. It needs to be built. Some leaders do so by conviction, others by force, and some others by a combination of both.

Conviction is common in democratic systems, where leaders attempt to get in tune with their voters by creating a sense of identification. Force is common in dictatorships (whether they call themselves democracies and hold mock elections or not). In such cases, identification is engineered by submission of the mind and/or the will.  

I wrote some years ago about the three levels of identification in the modern state. I called them the three “Es”. They are ethnicity, economy and empathy. These three “Es” are indicators or catalysts that show us how identification is achieved, when it is built through conviction, not by force.

Revisiting the three Es: Ethnicity, economy and empathy

“Ethnicity defines voting patterns in traditionally rural and agricultural democracies. These democracies are still at the basic level of the first “E” or E1. The measurement of success at this level is not based on the purchasing power as such, but the elders’ advice on how to vote.

At this level, a mega infrastructure programme like the Big Four Agenda makes no real impact on the political choice of citizens. Simply, what matters is to have your candidate in power. He is your messiah; he provides land and peaceful coexistence; the rest (who he is and his track record) is practically irrelevant. He is ‘our man’ (rarely woman) or the ‘man of our elders’ and that is what matters.

As societies evolve, the second “E” (E2), for economy, acquires more relevance and power to change voting patterns. In these young democracies people are usually guided by their pocket. This is basically the purchasing power and, every time the president appears in public, they remember what they could buy with this money before he came into power, and compare.

As democracies mature, leaders tend to ensure that everyone, or almost everyone, can satisfy basic needs, systems function and social service delivers, justice is available and effective, impunity is eradicated from the social, economic and political arena, and personal security is guaranteed. Then, the attention of the state is directed to the third “E” (E3) for empathy.

Empathy for the environment, for those who suffer in the world at large, for the poor countries, for refugees… Empathy in terms of foreign policy. Empathy for the fight against injustice in the world. This empathy brings people together and identifies them under one candidate or agenda that determines the outcome of general elections.”

Towards a new silk road

China traditionally built identification by force, not by conviction. History tells us that change from dynasty to dynasty was always traumatic and often marred by widespread violence and treason. This experience leads China to search for total identification, where dissent is not tolerated. Dissenters are traitors who undermine the continuity of a dynasty…and today this means the unity of the State. But conviction is still a necessary ingredient to sustain identification.

This is the Silk Road, the revival of a mega project carried out by a prestigious and ancient dynasty.  It distracts the citizen’s mind from their own internal challenges and it comes across as a higher ideal worth fighting for and looking forward to.

Africa is an extremely complicated and clumsy toll station in this Silk Road project. Why does Africa have such gigantic legal, social and structural differences? Why is it so difficult to cross a border in Africa even within regional communities with similar colonial pasts? Why do we work so differently within Africa? Why such diverse idiosyncrasies and approaches to culture, corruption and impunity, between people who look so much alike to them? Why is the bribe price so disproportionate between one country and the next?

Africa’s disjointed mess baffles the Chinese mind set

This baffles the Chinese unitary mind, and they hope that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will bring an ease of business and smoothen investment predictability throughout Africa.

The AfCFTA has been signed by all African states except Eritrea. It has also been ratified by 27, which means the agreement is now in force. Landry Signé, a Fellow at Brookings, says that “The significance of the AfCFTA cannot be overstated. It will be the world’s largest free trade area since the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1994… Under a successfully implemented AfCFTA, Africa will have a combined consumer and business spending of $6.7 trillion in 2030.”

The implementation of AfCFTA may be slow, complicated and possibly painful. The details on tariff concessions, competition, movement of people (including workers) investment, etc. will need to be worked out, and the devil is in the details.

Will the rules of origin affect China?

Under this agreement, preferential tariffs may be based on ‘rules of origin’. Signé asks himself “Is a blouse made from Chinese silk, designed and stitched in China, but packaged in Kenya eligible to receive AfCFTA preferential tariff rates? What if it is made of imported Chinese silk, but stitched together in Kenya?”

For China, this umbrella tariff agreement that covers 1.2 billion people means both business and identity. They need to unlock the meaning, predict obstacles and clear intricacies. As usual, the Chinese are looking forward and trying to understand how the AfCFTA will operate. Soon, they will understand it better than us and our own governments.

While many of our leaders see AfCFTA with suspicion and prefer to bury their heads in the sand, the Chinese are already trying to unravel its mysteries and find ways to profit from our African unity. That is clever and strategic, and they do it for the sake of their own identity. Meanwhile, the West looks at what is happening in paralysed confusion.