China remains pivotal to our economic and developmental agenda


In a recent program held by the South African Student Congress (SASCO) with the Chinese Ambassador to South Africa, His Excellency Lin Songtian, the Ambassador spoke passionately about the ability for China to move with pace in responding to the needs of the people in the  People’s Republic of China (PRC). The Ambassador also spoke of how there needed to be a shift in mentality and how this needed to be evident in all aspects of what would be the modern China, this went as far as a change of the name from the Republic Of China (ROC) to the Peoples Republic Of China (PRC), symbolising an era where the people would always be before the Republic.

The Ambassador in the same speech spoke of how China’s Economy surpassed the economy of Japan in 2010 and only four years later, in 2014, was twice the size of that of Japan. The economy of China is fast moving towards being triple the size of Japan. This did not happen overnight, it was a process of discipline, consistence and a relentlessness to a vision that required the most adventurous of imaginations.

The eventual prowess of China’s economic vision no more visionary than in a statement made by Chairman Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping,  “Coolly observe, calmly deal with things, hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time, accomplish things where possible.” This was to lead to the economic powerhouse we see today.

“Hide and bide.” This was the unofficial policy of Deng Xiaoping during those crucial reform years when the foundations were laid to the modern People’s Republic of China. By 1990, twelve years after the commencement of Deng’s opening reforms in the late seventies, this policy and the reforms had still not paid off. That year, according to official statistics, China had only contributed one-point six percent of the global GDP.

By 2017, “hide and bide” had proven successful. Only forty years after the opening reforms, championed by Deng, could China achieve the place of the second largest economy globally; achieving now a nearly fifteen percent contribution to the global economy. Unlike most countries benefiting from the commodity boom in the early nighties, China was able to implement policies that would directly affect the lives of millions of its people. By the National Congress of the Communist Party of China held last year, President Xi Jinping who is also General Secretary of the Party, could report that fifty million people had been lifted out of poverty in the five-year period 2012-2017.

Yet the New China, established with the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1948, had to first endure a terrible period before the ascent of the collective leadership of Paramount Leader Deng. A blotch on the history books of which not many Chinese speak today was the horrifying phase of the cultural revolution. As Madiba would be criticised in some quarters today, so too Chairman Mao was criticised by some for instigating and approving of the cultural revolution.

Deng himself was a victim during this period, where a systematic attack was launched on those perceived to be against the ‘peasants’ socialist revolution’. Academics, thinkers, artists and especially those who had played an integral part in bringing about discipline and thinking in the Party, in particular, came under attack. Comrades were made out to be that which they were not. This period would probably be described as the saddest and lowest part of the history of the New China.

The cultural revolution was launched seventeen years after the establishment of the PRC. It could have lasted for approximately a decade and ended more or less before the death of Chairman Mao and the rise of Deng Xiaoping. Many scholars suggest that Chairman Mao had been under pressure given the failures in bringing about economic change within the country and the Great Leap Forward in particular served as an example of not yielding the desired results that it should have. Chairman Mao, in turn, felt that Deng and Li Shaoqi, his closest confidants, were failing him. It is for this reason that he turned to the leaders of the rebellion.

South Africa is twenty-five years into its liberation. It would not be incorrect to suggest that it too has undergone its own cultural revolution with some suggesting a systematic attack on academia, thinkers and those who wish for discipline and more thinking within the ruling party and the body politic in general. Some scholars have even suggested that this onslaught started way before the seventeen year mark, after 1994, and we may even suggest that it culminated in the response to the #FeesMustFall phenomenon; the attack on those promoting decolonised thinking within our institutions of higher education.

Yet the opening reforms only came thirty years after China’s independence and as a result we may propose that the next five years will be critical for South Africa and the ANC. As we reach the thirty year mark by 2024, we must have a collective of leadership in place that would take us out of the morass we currently find ourselves in; as Deng’s collective leadership led China out of their cultural morass. By 2024, South Africa must be able to start introducing vast and open reforms so that by 2064, we too are a global player economically but more importantly that like China we are able to reap the benefits of lifting our people out of poverty.

But there are two fundamental differences in this comparative timeline. Firstly, Deng, at 74 years old, only assumed the collective leadership because of the vacuum in the leadership of the Party. During his time as Paramount Leader he made sure to settle the question of leadership which had raged through the party between the time of Chairman Mao’s death and his ascent as Paramount Leader; a period of two years.

South Africa, and the ANC in particular, needs to settle its leadership crisis. Rumours of lack of cohesion in both the Top Six as well as the National Executive Committee is deeply concerning. Even more so, unlike China in the late seventies, South Africa has a young population and therefore what is needed is generational takeover by young to middle aged people within the ANC.

The second fundamental difference is that unlike China in the seventies and eighties, we live in a rigorously globalised world. China could somewhat literally “hide and bide” while building itself up going relatively unnoticed. Today, with the institutionalisation of globalisation, mere speculation can not only cause a swift sway of vast amounts of capital but can actually cause a crash in the global economy. As President Xi would highlight, we live in a new era.

As a result, South Africa needs not only young leaders but it needs young, bright leaders. Only those possessing the necessary analytical and practical tools to mitigate this ever changing global era will be able to steer the South African ship into prosperous and peaceful waters. China, with its opening and reforms in the late seventies, continues to this day to place much emphasis on human capital through investment into education, skills training and health. Yet there is no worst enemy to strong human capital than poverty.

Chairman Mao will continue to be revered by those who know all of Chinese history, just like Nelson Mandela would be honoured in South Africa by all who appreciate the role he and his collective played. While we may be going through our own lowest moment as a country, we must use the next few years to lay the foundations of radical reforms that will yield a future for a poverty free and prosperous South Africa. Yet for this to happen, we need young bright people to stop playing hide and bide. This is our generation’s revolutionary task.

Buyile Matiwane is the Provincial Chairperson of the South African Students Congress in the Western Cape.