Time for a lesson in Chinese

2010-02-02 11:26

ACOLLEAGUE who often travels to ­China told

me about a rudimentary but very effective measure of ­economic performance used

by the Chinese government. It counts the number of what we would call service

delivery protests – and the higher the number the more likely the economy is not

growing as fast as it should.

The opposite means people have more opportunities to work and

therefore are happier. Of course they use more ­scientific methods too but this

one is a good indicator.

China offers some valuable, if unpalatable, lessons to the


Firstly, there is an unmistakable drive to make China ­successful –

yesterday rather than today or tomorrow. The Chinese are very clear about the

bigger goals of China Inc, and that in order to achieve those goals everyone

needs to move in step and in the same direction. Given our level of politicking

and bickering that takes place whenever there is a proposal on the table it is

not difficult to see why the Chinese economy is growing at more than 9% a year

and ours is coughing along at an asthmatic 4% or less.

South Africa urgently needs a national vision that is not laced

with political rhetoric and that will set clear long-term goals. Central to this

vision are clear targets and timelines on education, skills development and

health. With a deteriorating education system, skills unsuited for an economy

like ours and a dying population – our life expectancy is now 51 – any hopes of

rapid economic growth without ­serious interventions are ­delusional.

Secondly, the Chinese have adopted a clinical approach to education

and training at all levels. A long time ago China realised that if it couldn’t

­provide adequate jobs and ­basic services its entire political system would

collapse. ­Before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre the Chinese government had

identified higher education as a key pillar for building China as a global

economic powerhouse. As a result by 1998 more than 1 000 universities and

colleges were educating 3.4 million students.

Thirdly, China Inc understands that one of the fundamental laws of

competition is to offer fairly good products at the cheapest price. China is not

characterised by powerful trade unions like we are. In fact belonging to a trade

union outside of the sycophantic version of belonging to the Communist Party is


Our own textile industry knows all about Chinese ­competition after

having shed most of the jobs that were in existence five years ago. While we

cannot pay the pitiful wages workers earn in China, we can loosen the

stranglehold unions like the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union appear to

have on the future of our ­children. Protesting is one thing but holding the

country’s future to ransom is a moral crime.

Fourthly, corruption which has been institutionalised by class,

race and political cronyism will destroy any hope of a stable future if it

continues at the rate with which it is eating into our moral and body politic.

Crimes of economic dishonesty need to carry long ­sentences without the

possibility of a presidential pardon or parole.

Lastly, we need to entrench a culture of high performance and

intolerance of laziness. The Chinese work long, ­punishing hours without the

perks we take for granted.

I am not advocating the stripping away of hard-earned worker

rights, and I am fully aware of the financial pressures many workers suffer

­because they have to support a multitude of unemployed and sometimes sick

relatives on meagre wages.

I am, however, advocating a new national contract that emphasises

hard work and achievement of a national long-term vision. We cannot hope to be

competitive in the intensely competitive world economy if we aren’t prepared to

make sacrifices. South Africa needs rapid economic growth, faster than the

“magical” 6% we have been aiming for if we are to ­rapidly improve the lives of

the poor. China houses 20 million extra people every year. That is not by magic

but through hard work guided by a clear national vision. South Africa needs to

learn what it can from China and act without delay.

  • Zibi works for

    Xstrata South Africa but writes here in his personal capacity.

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