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September 3, 2019

How technical knowledge flows between China and Africa: It’s complicated

By Yu-Shan Wu, originally published on Africa Portal.

The drive to transfer technology and know-how from China to the African continent has taken centre stage in the relationship. Chinese diplomats increasingly emphasise this aspect of cooperation at public events; and several African policymakers – including the former AU Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – have expressed wider interest in learning from China’s development model that includes practical skills training.

For example, at last year’s 7th iteration of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – where African and Chinese leaders meet to celebrate, review and set targets for the next three years – China made tangible pledges to this end. This was encapsulated in the Beijing Action Plan (2019-2021) that covered an impressive list of cooperation areas like political, economic and social development, culture and people exchanges, as well as peace and security cooperation. Overarching these pronouncements was the commitment of USD 50 billion of varied government-related support and another USD 10 billion expected to come from Chinese companies’ investments.

In virtually all the cooperation areas highlighted in the action plan, knowledge transfer from China to Africa in the form of ‘training’ was mentioned (over 40 times). This makes practical sense, as inadequate vocational and technical skills are a primary impediment to industrialisation on the continent. Take for example Kenya's Standard Gauge Railway where China provided local staff with knowledge on railway operation and customer services. A China Daily report added that China would share more of its ‘development practises with Africa’ by establishing 10 Luban Workshops to provide vocational training. The first such training was launched in Djibouti this year and focussed on railway and commerce.

Like many other aspects of the China-Africa interaction, there is a symbiotic link between the continent’s need for technology, infrastructure and the accompanying skills and what China can offer in terms of knowledge and experience. The question is whether the transfer of information is simply enough and more complexly, whether these interactions are internalised to bring further progress for African economies. One area that is seldom emphasised is the role of implicit – that is the unspoken and subtle – understanding that runs adjacent to technical interactions.

The complexity of knowledge transfer

Literature on knowledge transfer often focuses on the importance of hardware equipment and related training (or other practical elements). In this instance, a strong government-to-government interaction is required. Yet China’s engagement with Africa, with regards to skills and training, reflects the equal importance of tacit information.

What is tacit knowledge? In an article titled 'Do the Chinese Government’s Technology Transfer Policies Even Work'?, the author finds that transferring technology is not a linear process. It’s not just plans or formulas that can simply be transferred. Real knowledge is derived from the very process of encountering problems – and even solutions – during the design and creation of a technology or blueprint, which is in turn embedded in people or a culture. Successful knowledge transfer therefore requires adequate time, strong motivation from the transferer and lastly, a relatively small gap (in terms of capability) between transferer and transferee. This reiterates the informal but necessary aspects of knowledge creation.

Tacit knowledge and China-Africa

There is no denying that Chinese technical and skills assistance to Africa is necessary and welcome but this interaction is ultimately incomplete without knowledge of a society and people, where these ideas originate from and are going to. Further reasoning for why building tacit knowledge is necessary in the China-Africa context is provided:

First, while official interactions between China and the continent have progressed steadily since the 1950s and economic relations have multiplied since around the 1990s, understanding of one another’s’ way of thinking still lags behind. It is noteworthy that officials on both sides have over the last decade increasingly emphasised the development of tacit knowledge through people-to-people exchanges, scholarships to China and cultural events. Albeit as a newer area of emphasis that is still driven by high-level initiatives, the diffusion of relationship building will need to take place across societies, organically and over time.

Second, in a study on Chinese agricultural training for African officials, the authors found that a large component of the course centred, understandably, on getting to know China’s culture, history and economy. At the same time, these courses are often short-term and require English translators (rarely the main language of instruction for most participants), while the lectures are instructed in Mandarin.

Therefore nuance is lost as meaning has been mediated through a ‘middle’ language. Not only that but each side’s understanding of terms such as ‘development’ or ‘progress’ is also impacted by socio-historical context and social values and norms. Collaboration has therefore also been affected by interpretation and at times, the way interactions are structured.

In contrast, China itself has a history of learning and adapting policies from abroad, such as from Singapore during the 1990s, albeit not without its own challenges. For instance Chinese public servants would travel to the island state for training and even tertiary qualifications, like masters programmes in public administration. Not only were these courses held over a long-term period, they were also instructed in Mandarin. But understanding goes beyond language. A basis of understanding exists between China and Singapore, from a shared cultural history perspective (with many Singaporeans of Chinese descent) and other opportunities for interaction like celebrations or shared rituals and cuisine. This suggests that officials or policies cannot simply determine what or how knowledge travels across borders.

Third and linked to the previous point is that government collaboration is necessary but it is merely an initial step. Take for example the 2015 drive to cooperate on education matters between China and South Africa. It was announced that Mandarin would be incrementally offered as a second language in selected local public schools. This is still being piloted – but in 2017 about 53 schools offered the subject. Beyond government agreement, the South African public reception of this announcement at the time was mixed. During a national radio discussion some callers expressed enthusiasm and welcome for the language, expressing its importance in business and a globalised world. Meanwhile others expressed caution of the bilateral relationship as well as concern that less priority was given to the other local official languages (there are 11 in South Africa). On the other hand, buy-in has occurred in different ways, evident through the increased mobility of teachers, including South Africans, who are travelling to East Asia to teach English. This suggests that the knowledge transfer process is also dependent on a host of willing stakeholders beyond those that draft formal agreements or MOUs.

Finally the discussion on tacit knowledge lends to the idea that information is also contextual. Beyond public pronouncements that could mislead ideas that development is a blueprint that is readily transported, adaptability and flexibility is key. The continent can learn from China’s experience – but as a report aptly titled ‘Learning By Doing’ sums: Chinese policies themselves are not static; they are a product of adaptation as well as trial and error. So instead of imitation, what needs to be understood are the very processes and institutions that enable policy changes. Of course learning also goes both ways and understanding of the changes and processes of the receiving countries is as necessary.

This piece has highlighted the importance of developing bonds beyond the practical and economic in nature. The example of knowledge transfer between China and Africa demonstrates how an often under-emphasised aspect of ties – that is the deepening of people understanding – whose impact is difficult to assess, can become a vital component in the very success of practical linkages.

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