Giles Mohan’s research has never been more topical. Since 2005 he has been studying the meteoric rise of Chinese influence in the developing world, in Africa in particular. So he’s well-placed to spot the strong signals that centuries of Western global domination are coming to an end, as China’s growth enters a new, expansionary, phase.
“For a long time China’s economy has largely been a conduit for western consumption – they have grown by making goods to sell to us,” says Mohan.
“But now they have a huge and growing middle class who are consumers in their own right, and they are drawing on resources from Latin America and Africa to feed demand.”
Suddenly developing countries have a new source of income and investments, which is already pulling some African nations out of poverty at an impressive rate. And it’s making them less enthusiastic about jumping through hoops set by Western governments, agencies and aid donors.
“Western countries and agencies like the World Bank and NGOs have always said that to have development you need democratic governments and transparent institutions,” says Mohan. “But the Chinese have a different way of doing things. They are happy to do business without imposing these kinds of conditions.”
China itself has a notably undemocratic system of government, but one that has presided over spectacular development for its own enormous population, he says. “China has lifted more people out of poverty than any other country in the world. Western countries can no longer go unchallenged in saying to developing countries in Africa ‘our way is better’.”
Many in the west find this challenge to their values and power base deeply unsettling and scary, and some are envisioning a ‘Chinese conspiracy’ to take over the world. But the truth is more complicated, says Mohan – and less alarming.
His latest book, Chinese migrants and Africa’s development, co-authored with the OU’s Ben Lampert and Daphne Chang, and May Tan-Mullins of Nottingham Ningbo University, presents the Chinese influx in a much more human, sympathetic and nuanced light. It’s the first comprehensive study of countless independent Chinese business migrants – estimated at one million or more to date – flocking to African countries to set up businesses such as manufacturing plants, take-aways, construction firms, and trading companies.
“These are not big companies but individual entrepreneurs, maybe one or two people setting up an import and export company,” says Giles. “They are the same kind of dynamic Chinese entrepreneurs you find elsewhere in the world, and have done in history. They are bringing in cheap goods and services – OK some people say their quality is poor, but at least Africans can afford them.”
Large state-subsidised Chinese companies are there too of course, and have been accused of exploiting Africa and stripping her resources. But at the same time, Chinese investment is enabling Africa countries to build the infrastructure they desperately need, faster than ever before.
It could even be – shock horror – that Eastern trade will bring Africa the prosperity that decades of Western aid has failed to deliver. The scenario is suggested by the rapid rise of the ‘African lions’ – a group of sub-Saharan countries that have seen soaring growth rates while western economies stagnate. Their rise has been attributed, in large part, to the enormous demand for African commodities, from oil and metals to agricultural produce – not just from China, but from other fast-developing Asian economies too.
It all adds up an unprecedented shift in the global axis of power, not just from west to east but north to south. Studying Chinese migrants has also given Mohan some insights into why Chinese entrepreneurs are being so successful. China itself has developed so rapidly that cultural memories of poverty and hardship are still strong, he says.
“Chinese people are willing to work very hard, and to go to developing countries and live under harsh conditions – to ‘eat bitterness’ as they say – not because of some two-thousand-year-old Confucian ethic, but because they have memories of what it’s like to be very poor.”
Not for much longer, perhaps, as China’s star continues to rise. “Arguably in 30 years China will be governing a lot of global institutions,” says Mohan.
“There are signs everywhere that we are recognising we can no longer ignore China. British universities, for example, are working hard to attract Chinese students.”
Several traditional English boarding schools have opened satellite versions in mainland China, with Winston Churchill’s alma mater Harrow opening a successful branch in Hong Kong.
The Open University has been working in partnership with The Open University of China (formerly the China Central TV and Radio University) since 2000. And last December OU Vice-Chancellor Martin Bean accompanied Prime Minister David Cameron and other senior Cabinet members on a Chinese visit where the OU reinforced and extended its links with Chinese institutions.
So does he think China poses a real threat to the west? “It’s a threat if you are worried about being the top dog. The more sane commentators will see it as an important opportunity.”