In Barack Obama’s recent account of his first term as president, A Promised Land, there is a telling story about the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen in 2009. When Obama arrived the conference was deadlocked. The US had promised to give financial aid to help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy but the EU nations were demanding a binding treaty which developing countries, including the BRICS states, didn’t want.
In particular, says Obama, “China, India and South Africa appeared content to let the conference crash and burn and blame it on the Americans”. The best hope for a deal would be if Obama could get the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, onside. But Wen was clearly lining up the BRICS states to block a deal.
Obama had hoped to meet with Wen but Wen simply disappeared and it was clear that he was ducking a meeting. Rumours circulated that he was already on his way out to the airport though some said he was still in the conference building. However, Wen was then spotted in a conference room several floors up. Obama turned to Hillary Clinton: “When’s the last time you crashed a party?” “It’s been a while”, she laughed. So with a gaggle of staffers and Secret Service agents, Obama and Clinton made their way upstairs and burst in on a startled Wen who was sitting together with Prime Minister Singh (India) and Presidents Lula (Brazil) and Zuma (South Africa), together with a large contingent of Chinese staffers and secret service men.
To the general astonishment Obama just pulled up a chair for himself and suggested they make a deal. “Lula and Zuma looked sheepishly down at the papers in front of them”, Obama records. He then cut to the chase and said he assumed they were about to let the conference fail and try to blame it all on the Americans.
Well, he said, they might not succeed in that because if that’s what they did he, Obama, was going straight back down to tell the whole conference that he’d come there willing to commit the USA to huge new reductions in greenhouse gases and also to offer billions of dollars to help poorer countries but that the BRICS countries had decided it was better to turn down those offers and do nothing. He would then say the same to all the poorer countries and broadcast this news to the poor people of BRICS, who would be among the chief victims of climate change. Was that what they wanted?
The Chinese minister for the environment went crazy, shouting and red-faced, at this threat. Obama demanded a translation but Premier Wen waved it away – “what the environment minister said was unimportant” – and asked to see the text of the agreement Obama wanted. Manmohan Singh seemed entirely unfazed by the whole episode and, after listening carefully, also agreed to look at the text.
Within an hour the deal was done, the EU were persuaded to come onside and the conference was saved. As Obama boarded Air Force One one of his aides commented “I gotta say, boss, that was some real gangster shit back there”. Which indeed it had been. Obama comes from Chicago, after all.
The interesting thing for South Africans – and other BRICS citizens – is the picture which emerges of the Chinese being in such complete control that Wen Jiabao felt quite confident of changing direction on the spot when he realised he might be heading for a propaganda disaster. There was no attempt to consult the other BRICS leaders (though Russia, which was not present, would doubtless have been treated differently and of course India too could not be taken for granted). Lula and Zuma come across as mere schoolboys among adults, altering direction the moment the Chinese gave the order.
Brazil and South Africa, after all, are pretty well bust, share junk status and would love to get Chinese financial assistance. Lula was shortly to go to jail and Zuma could well follow him. They were beggars at the banquet, awed by Chinese power.
It is, of course, not news that the ANC idolises China. It is also in love with Cuba and Venezuela and the liberation movements of southern Africa. This is a very odd list, including some of the world’s most unsuccessful, corrupt and undemocratic governments.
The ANC talks about these states as if they were success stories, though of course it cannot have escaped the ANC’s notice that all these states are complete failures. However, the ANC is entirely aware that China is a huge and powerful success, well able to stand up to the West and destined soon to overtake America economically and perhaps even militarily.
That a formerly under-developed country can do this is the dream of “the global South”. And China is Communist (“progressive”), talks the same Marxist language as the ANC and professes solidarity with the rest of the Third World. For years there has been a constant flow of ANC ministers and office-bearers to China, all returning with wondrous tales of lightning construction and glistening modernity. When Ramaphosa talks of building a new city or of bullet trains there is no doubt that what he is talking about is copying China.
The ANC is low on confidence and self-esteem and although it will never admit it, it has certainly noticed that things are falling to bits in South Africa, that unemployment and inequality are worse than ever, and, in a word, that the ANC government has failed. Hence the frantic wish that “we must learn from China”, that the ANC party school must be designed on Chinese lines and so on.
It is as if China has some secret magic trick that the ANC wants to capture and learn. David Masondo, the deputy finance minister who is keen to boost the government’s economic plan, Operation Vulindlela, does so by explaining how Deng Xiaoping’s structural reforms rescued China from the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and launched it into headlong growth. He then concludes that “Operation Vulindlela should be used as our Deng Xiaoping moment, albeit within our constitutional democratic order”.
The last phrase is interesting, a half admission that China is not democratic. In fact of course, it is a totalitarian dictatorship. South Africans, reared like Hong Kong Chinese in the more liberal atmosphere bequeathed by a British colonial culture, would never stomach China’s ruthless oppression.
China persecutes its Muslim Uighur and Tibetan minorities in a way shocking to South Africans, even if the ANC is careful never to criticise such abominable behaviour. In China trade unions are forbidden and those who try to organize them are thrown in jail. Economic growth depends on prodigiously hard work, high productivity, and huge re-investment ratios – 30-40% of GDP – which are achieved by ruthlessly suppressing consumption.
China would never dream of giving welfare grants to the poor or sky-high salaries to public service workers. And Chinese growth has been achieved through the sweeping privatization of huge parts of its economy.
This then is the magic behind China’s success – and the ANC has no intention whatsoever of copying it. Instead it kow-tows to China – most recently refusing to condemn the Myanmar coup because the Myanmar generals are under China’s wing – and somehow kids itself that this sort of camp-following will cause some of China’s success to rub off on us.
This is crazy. It means trading away one’s independence for a mirage. The infatuation with China felt by ANC leaders suggests that while they are aware of the ANC’s own colossal failure they do not really understand why it has occurred. Meanwhile, in their desperation, they are willing to clutch at straws.
This article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport newspaper.