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Prof. ZHOU Yongmei Gave Speech on the Fifth China Africa Young Leaders Forum

Hon. Minister Song, Hon. Minister Wang,

Hon. Madam Speaker Tsegan from Togo,

Hon. Secretary General Mr. Tuju from Kenya,

Youth leaders from around Africa,


Today I am speaking as a Chinese educator at Peking University’s ISSCAD, which was promised by President Xi at the UN General Assembly in 2015. ISSCAD started operation in 2016 and is devoted to nurturing developmental policy leaders and enhancing south-south cooperation between China, Africa and the rest of the world.



A. Context of a deepening Africa-China partnership


In Year 2000, as a Young Professional at the World Bank, I moved to Accra, Ghana with my two-year-old daughter and started a journey of discovery and learning of Africa. As an illustration of the power of literature, my interest in Africa was thanks to a Taiwanese writer, Sanmao, who lived in Laayoune, Western Sahara. Sanmao’s writings on her life in the Sahara was a rare window to a different world out there.


When I arrived in Ghana, I could find a sprinkle of adventurous Chinese businessmen, a few Chinese restaurant owners in my Accra neighhood of Osu, a Chinese herbal medicine doctor in Kumasi, and a small project management team from a Chinese company implementing a small-town water supply project funded by the World Bank.


That year the first FOCAC Ministerial Meeting was held in Beijing. I wouldn’t have predicted that in the following two decades economic and social relations between Africa and China would make such a leap. While precise estimates are lacking, there are estimated 500,000 Africans living in China and between one and two million Chinese living in Africa. Trade volume has increased by twenty times in two decades. Since 2009, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner. According to Johns Hopkins University’s China–Africa Research Initiative report, between 2000 and 2019, Chinese financiers signed 1,141 loan commitments worth USD 153 billion with African governments and state-owned enterprises. 


In the eight years of working in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, I saw countries with rich natural resources, entrepreneurial individuals and vibrant civil societies charting their own development paths in highly contested political settings. I had the honor of supporting institutional reform efforts in states in Nigeria, strengthening public financial management system in Ghana, and establishing a local government system in Sierra Leone after the civil war. The challenges facing African leaders are multiple: ethnic division, lack of infrastructure, low levels of human capital, corruption. Yet the potential is huge. Some of the fastest growing economies are in Africa. The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement will provide enormous opportunities for Africa and its trade and investment partners. Africa and China will be even more connected in the years to come.


In my two decades working in the World Bank in Africa and Asia, I could see an increasingly visible role of China in several development agendas: infrastructure, extractive industries, industrialization, and digital infrastructure. I could also see the mutual unease between traditional development partners and the “new kid on the block”. At the country level, interactions between Chinese stakeholders and traditional donors were limited. Data on the scope of the Chinese engagement was not readily available. The consequence is that people write their own narratives about China’s engagement in Africa.


Generally speaking, there are two narratives in the popular media and academic literature about China’s role in Africa. One narrative recognizes that Chinese investment helps African countries build infrastructure, develop industries, provide health services. In addition, China’s entry increased competition among donors and allows African countries to choose the best deal for them. Another narrative laments that Chinese firms are not creating enough jobs and procurement opportunities for local people; Chinese firms are exacerbating the corruption problems among African elites; Chinese communities are not integrated with local communities.


As a policy researcher in international development, our job is to collect systematic data and make hard-nosed diagnosis to find out how to maximize the development dividends of a deepening Africa-China relationship. At Peking University’s Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development, our mission is to educate young leaders who can build a more peaceful, more prosperous, more equal, and more sustainable world.


B. In a world facing the challenges of conflict, poverty, inequality, climate change, and Covid19, what kind of young leaders do we need to build stronger partnership between Africa and China and to build a better world? We need developmentally oriented young leaders with the following qualities.


1). Leaders with empathy: We need leaders who are genuinely seeking to understand the others’ realities and aspirations and respecting our common humanity and value diversity. With empathy, cultural differences lead to curiosity and genuine inquiry rather than judgment and stereotyping. Invest in learning the local language. You will be thrilled with the bit you understand when shopping in the market or watching soap operas, and you will be warmly welcomed in the host country. When asked about the source of innovation, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s answer is “Empathy.” With empathy you design products people want and negotiate deals that can stick.


2). Leaders who empower others. Be a business leader who cares not just about creating value for the shareholders but also takes responsibility for the pollution and greenhouse gas emission your company generates. Invest in local capacity through vocational training and small business development, so you can create jobs and supply chain opportunities in your host community. And as an organizational leader, groom local talents and young people so they can take over your baton and even surpass you. Developmentally oriented leadership is hard work. It challenges you to develop new capability, new systems, and a new organizational culture. But it will help you earn a “social license” to operate in addition to a government license and will help you build a more sustainable business and a more respected company.


3). Leaders with integrity: Development is a messy business. Corruption, clientelism, conflict of interests, elite capture, these are part of realities in the development process. Whether a government leader or a business leader, choosing between what is expedient and what is right can pose a dilemma. That is when real leadership stands out. Real leaders put the national interest in front of ethnic interest or personal interest. Real leaders leave a legacy of meritocratic civil service recruitment, government transparency and stronger institutions of checks and balance. My dear friend Lara Taylor-Pearce, Auditor General of Sierra Leone spent the last ten years building an independent institution abiding by professional ethics rather than bending to political pressure. We need more courageous role models like her.


C. ISSCAD aims to cultivate leaders with these qualities, leaders who can engender trust across cultural boundaries.


ISSCAD will help you understand the complexity of China’s development experience. You will study an unfolding development story from a first-class faculty in classroom and at least three weeks of field visits and first-hand interviews. We will not teach you a blueprint of development, because there is none. We hope you will discover a Chinese mindset of working with what’s there and taking a pragmatic and adaptive approach.


You will find alignment between China’s experience and mainstream recipes of developing the economy -- invest in human and physical capital; unleash the market force of creative destruction; build a capable and accountable government who set fair rules for all and protect the poor and the vulnerable; and be in balance with nature. You will also find professors debate about the role of industrial policy, the balance between the state, the market and the civil society. When you live here, you will go beyond the media reporting to look under the hood and form your own opinions.


Our goal at ISSCAD is not to export a “Chinese model.” Knowing the Chinese development story may create insights and inspirations for you, but it is your context that will decide what is the most suitable policies and institutions. The most interesting learning is on how reformers navigate the political economy and charted a pragmatic path of development. That’s the hard work our students have to do. As you navigate these questions, you will be helping our faculty and your fellow students understand your country’s development opportunities and challenges, the root causes for poverty, political-economy roadblocks for reform.


Among your classmates are Chinese officials from various ministries, many of them responsible for international engagement of their ministries. You will form a close-knit community of learning partners and bridge for China-Africa collaboration. Currently, in my class student groups are working on how to build climate adaptation plans for the health systems in China and Ethiopia, how to reduce plastic pollution that has become a global environmental disaster, and how to strengthen women leadership in government agencies in both continents.


We welcome young leaders from Africa to join our growing community of people who are passionate about building a strong Africa-China partnership and building a world that is more peaceful, more prosperous, more equal, and more sustainable.