In April, I boarded a taxi to commute home from the business school campus in Shanghai (where I teach innovation and marketing). The taxi driver asked me in Chinese, "Where do you come from?". I managed to reply in my broken Chinese, "I come from Ghana". He quickly replied, "Ghana in Africa--Africa and China are brothers". The New African cover story in the February issue enumerated several good reasons why the West is worried about China's foray into Africa. In my view, there is another reason--the West is worried that China may be right about its strategy in Africa. This strategy is captured by the words of my taxi driver.
I have travelled extensively in many countries in the West. I have never heard a taxi driver, or anyone for that matter, say to me that the West and Africa are friends, much less talk of being brothers. My taxi driver's words exude personal warmth, but more importantly, they reflect the positioning, the intellectual paradigm and the innovation that underpins the Chinese strategy towards Africa, each of which scares the West.
In many ways, China-Africa relations are marketed to the local Chinese population and those in Africa as being underpinned by brotherhood--involving friendliness, respect and mutual understanding and development. This is in stark contrast to the "masterhood" that many see as implicitly or explicitly underpinning the approach of many Western countries in their relations with Africa.
What is missing from the Chinese approach is the public lecturing about the "right way" to do things--the "we know better" attitude. Instead, the Chinese would like us to think like a brother would; they respect the will and right of Africa to make its own decisions regarding its economic, political and social progress.
Of course, China, like any other country in the world, has its own development agenda in engaging Africa--just like Africa has in engaging China. However, in the field of marketing, we appreciate the importance of positioning. Some would say that perception is everything and therefore effective positioning is the key to product or service success.
It appears to me that China is probably more aware and appreciative of this idea in its relations with Africa than is the West. Unlike the West, China appears to be more creative in building nation-state relationships at the people level rather than at the governmental level. My taxi driver's greeting indicates that China is a better marketer in this regard than is the West.
Many observers would argue that, as a latecomer to Africa, China has the advantage of learning from the mistakes of the West.
Although this is a correct assessment, overemphasising this late-mover advantage runs the risk of ignoring a critical cultural and intellectual paradigm that shapes China's Africa strategy. The Chinese have a remarkable ability and agility in embracing paradoxes. Unlike the West, which tends to emphasise either/or, analysis of parts, and the linearity of time, the Chinese think in terms of both/and, whole and harmony, and to consider time as circular. All this means that, to the Chinese, nothing is static and everything is dynamic. This mindset requires constant adaptation and readjustment.
Likewise, the China-Africa strategy looks at Africa as a whole. China does not subscribe to the good-and-bad dichotomy that characterises much of the Western perception of Africa. China embraces the 'good' within its brother Africa, but at the same time does not spurn the 'bad'. The Chinese ability to balance seeming opposites, coupled with their circular view of time, explains the willingness, and indeed necessity, to deal with nations such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, and others which the West sees as "rogue" states. …