Minjian International has circulated an interview to be published in the next issue of 《信睿》 (Thinker’s Letter), an intellectual magazine launched this year whose contributors include the director Jia Zhangke. The interview, entitled 绝对不平衡：中国经济成长与发展中国家的现代化道路 (Absolute imbalance: China’s economic growth and developing countries’ development pathways) is with Yu Xiangdong于向东. As I have not heard of him before, I tried to look him up. The most likely possibility is that he is at the Shanghai World Observation Institute 上海世界观察研究所, a semi-private (民办) institution linked to the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. (The exercise reminded me how differently the Chinese Internet functions — for example, institutional websites seem to be pure formalities, while all information resides in community portals.) The interview itself reveals, however, that Yu participated in the negotiations of a Chinese bank in Congo-Kinshasa.
The title of the interview comes from Yu’s view that while China’s trade imbalance with the West is “relative” and does not affect the compatibility of the economies involved, its economic relations with “developing countries” reflect an “absolute imbalance” and cannot contribute to the latter’s development in their current form, but rather delay it.
This is, according to Yu, because Chinese investments strengthen the entrenchment of oligarchies as they have more cash to distribute to their clienteles without effecting a modernizing transformation of society. The latter, Yu says, must start with furthering agriculture (especially, for some reason, animal husbandry) and service industries while building functional rural structures that provide information, credit, and other infrastructure. This is not something that corporations can do: it is a political task, which is why he dismisses China’s non-interference stance as hypocritical and untenable.
On the one hand, Yu sounds very much like World Bank development experts who promote “participatory development,” and he endorses “good-governance” clauses and praises what he calls the rule-of-law legacy of British colonialism, which, in his view, was instrumental in making economies such as Botswana work. (He is careful to distinguish the rule of law from democratization.) On the other hand, though, Yu uses the term 乡村重建 (rural reconstruction) to describe what states should do. This is reminiscent of the terminology used in 1950s China, and he says that Africa has a lot to learn from the way Chinese economic development started, in 1he 1970s, with agriculture.
When talking about what he calls oligarchic power, Yu dismisses the view that it is a consequence of the colonial legacy, but also — largely — refuses to culturalize it. Rather, he offers a fairly sophisticated though not fully developed economic explanation that has to do with the disadvantageous timing of African states’ experiments with import substitution and export-driven industrialization in terms of the global economic environment, as well as other factors such as demographics and accelerated urbanization.
Although the tone of the interview is pessimistic, Yu also mentions that, when taking part in the Congo talks, he tried to separate the interests of the natural-resources export bodies from those of the oligarchy in order to allow the flow of some revenues into “rural reconstruction.” He does not mention how, but is optimistic about the possibility of such setups.
Overall, a refreshing reading compared to the articles of officially anointed no-strings-attached-Confucian-values apostles.