The Chinese Revolution under Mao Tsetung began in 1949. Since then, China has undergone a massive industrial and technological revolution in the last ten years, after more than 50 years of mixed fortunes in its technological march.
By the 1990s, it was clear that advances in technology in China were producing mixed results, and China still found itself lagging behind in many areas when compared to its foreign counterparts. China decided to re-arrange its technological priorities and made some sweeping changes.
One of the changes made was the establishment of technological parks and districts, sited close to prestigious universities. This was a departure from the past where there was a huge disconnect between the research and development agencies and the end-users of the technology produced. This provided an opportunity for collaborative partnerships and recruitment of the most brilliant of the graduating students into these technology parks. An example of such parks is Zhongguancun Technological Park which has been likened to America’s Silicon Valley and is located close to Tsinghua and Peking Universities.
China also actively promoted a system of technology transfer where companies would form international partnerships, then learn and adapt the technology used by their foreign partners. In addition, China has been able to diversify its technological push into agriculture with advances such as the sequencing of the rice genome.
We have also had more advances in space travel, with China now being a destination point for countries wishing to launch satellites into space. The promotion of worker-owned plants and businesses has also translated into China being the home of cottage industries. Virtually every country in Africa and indeed the world is filled with Chinese-made products which are generally cheaper than those of the local countries.
What can Africa learn from the Chinese technological industry?
Firstly, the stuttering nature of China’s development between 1950 and the 90s can be traced to the lack of synergy between those involved in research and development and the end-users of the innovations, inventions and discoveries that came out of these researches. This was further compounded by a lack of clear-cut policy direction in the area of science and technology. There was so much emphasis on defence and advancement of military hardware to the detriment of other areas of development. The statement by Deng Xiaoping (“to get rich is glorious”) seemed to refocus policy makers and get them to understand that a more focussed approach to technological advancement as a tool for development was the way to go. Many African countries are suffering from the same problem where there is no synergy between policy-makers, research and development agencies and end-user industries. Indeed, like the Executive Chairman of the Nigerian Universities Commission once said, the relationship between the universities (the research and development agency in many African countries) and the industries (the end-users) is indeed very weak. There needs to be a paradigm shift from the current state of affairs.
Secondly, there is a need for African governments to develop home-grown technology and not rely so much on imported technology. China has been able to do this with the result that Chinese technology is one of the cheapest in the world. This has made many companies open up production facilities in China, helping them save cost and improve profitability.
One area where African countries need to improve on China’s record is in the area of protection of intellectual property rights. Piracy and counterfeiting are commonplace in China, without consumers giving the barest of thought to it. Recently, cable news media ran a story on a fake Apple store that was operating brazenly, with the owners and workers seemingly oblivious to any wrongdoing. Such situations diminish investor confidence and are ultimately counterproductive.
There is a lot Africa can learn from the Chinese technological industry.