By Olusegun Adeniyi
As one would expect from such IT persons, the duo of Mr Ye Zhenzhen, the CEO of People’s Daily Innovation and Mr David Chen, Vice President of Microsoft, dazzled their audience with the coming world of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the implications for the new media age. This was at a discussion session last Tuesday evening in Dunhuang, Gansu Province of Western China. But it was a personal story told by Ye that really got me. He recounted what happened when he was five years old, growing up in his village that had no electricity.
According to Ye, at that period, the entire community decided to contribute money to buy a generator. After that, it took several weeks to get an engineer that would help them power it. And then on D-Day, all the children were gathered for a lecture on the danger of touching the electric bulb. They were regaled with tales of a tiger that could be unleashed from inside the bulb. When, after the session, I asked Ye for his age, he said 41. “So the event you recounted happened about 36 years ago?” He answered in the affirmative. He also gave the name of his village as Longtanxia near Wenzhou city in Zhenjiang Province, Southeast China even as he told me of how prosperous most of his people have now become.
That a society in such stage of development less than four decades ago can advance to the level China is today bears eloquent testimony to visionary leadership and a strong commitment by the people to work for progress. It is also a pointer that there is no limit to how far Nigeria can still go if we are determined to change our narrative despite the failings of the past. The challenge, however, is that when other societies are thinking ahead on how to advance the good of their citizenry, some people in our country are more interested in dancing with pythons, smiling with crocodiles and generally playing some monkey games.
That explains why we are still squabbling, essentially over the sharing of unearned income from a perishing commodity that may soon become useless. But we must learn lessons from other societies lest we surrender our future to the kind of deprivation that can only breed violence. From last Sunday to Tuesday, I joined 264 other journalists from 126 countries across all continents in Dunhuang, Gansu Province of Western China, to participate at the 2017 Media Cooperation Forum on Belt and Road. First held in 2014, this year’s edition is considered the largest concentration of senior journalists, representing different countries, ever assembled anywhere in the world.
At the opening ceremony on Tuesday, ten of us gave keynote speeches: Mr. Otis Bilodeau, Senior Executive Editor, Bloomberg News Asia Pacific, United States; Mr. Guy Zitter, Senior Advisor, Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT), United Kingdom; Mr. Masood Malik, Managing Director, Associated Press of Pakistan Corporation, Pakistan; Mr. José Vera, President, Agencia EFE, Spain; Mr Negoitsa, General Director, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Russia; Mr. Alejandro Esquivel, General Director, Notimex News Agency, Mexico; Ms. Lee Huay Leng, Singapore Press Holdings Ltd., Singapore; Mr. Stephen Rae, Group Editor-in-Chief, Independent News & Media (INM), Ireland; Mr. Mansour Abo Alazzm, Managing Editor, Al-Ahram Newspaper, Egypt and myself.
In my presentation, I alluded to the fact that at a period in history when some leaders are desperately bent on erecting walls across borders, it is noteworthy that China has decided that building bridges, opening new horizons and forging strategic partnerships are the way to go. This, of course, is in line with the vision of President Xi Jinping, who said in his speech at Davos early this year that “pursuing protectionism is like locking oneself in a dark room”. But can he walk his talk?
Colin Mackerras, a Professor Emeritus at the Griffith University in Australia-—whose relationship with China dates back to the mid-sixties when he spent two years in the country teaching English and learning Mandarin at one of their universities—said there is a lot of pessimism about the Belt and Road initiative in the West. But Mackerras also added that the idea stands a good chance of success because it is coming at a period “when the US-led globalization is in retreat and getting weaker while China is getting stronger. It is a positive development.” He predicted that in the next few decades the impact of the initiative would be huge.
With a vision to create the needed physical and digital connections across Europe, Asia and Africa by breaking trade barriers and deploying the power of technology, China envisions opening the space for expanding inclusive economic growth and diplomatic ties on a global scale. And by targeting no fewer than 4.4 billion people across 69 countries that have already signed on, Belt and Road initiative will directly touch more than 60 percent of the total global population with a combined GDP of over $21 trillion. What that means in essence is that an unprecedented investment window will be open for shared prosperity among peoples in several countries at different stages of development.
While it can be argued that this is merely aspirational given contemporary international realities, there is no doubt that China is serious to project its power and in such a strategic manner that it will also benefit immensely from the new economic order it envisions. In his presentation on Tuesday, the Chairman, China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, Mr Zheng Bijian, said two roads have diverged for the world and every country now has a choice as to which one to travel: that of protectionism which he dismissed as offering no solution or that of a common destiny of innovation, productivity and shared benefits across boundaries. This, according to Zheng, is the road President Xu has decided to take China with the Belt and Road initiative launched in 2013.
For me, what worries is that Africa is not positioning itself very well to take advantage of the opportunities that the initiative offers in this increasingly interdependent world, especially given the growing presence of China in most countries across the continent. While I am aware of some of their transport infrastructure projects in East Africa, there is need for a more coherent African strategy. This is because the more the number of countries connected under this initiative, the more easily triggered for collective development they will become. What that therefore entails for Africa is that we need to open the space for economic integration even among ourselves so as to enjoy a better bargaining power and the advantage of scale.
Meanwhile, as one would expect in a gathering of journalists, the state of the profession in the new age was also discussed and there are clear apprehensions on the future of the traditional media. The consensus was that newspapers must adapt or die. In his contribution, Mr Thomas Shefeit, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of “wiener zeitung”, a newspaper founded in Vienna in 1703 (original name, “wienerisches diarium”) illustrated the point on the evolution of the media. A December 1726 edition of his paper, bromide of which he has kindly sent to me on request, published a story about a meeting between a group of monks from the Hungarian Empire and the Chinese Emperor. The big deal is that the event reported happened in October 1725 which means that it took 14 months between when the story was written and when it was eventually published; yet it still hit page one!
Altogether, it has been an exciting time in China. From Dunhuang, we are now back to Beijing where some of us still have functions to attend, including a meeting this afternoon with a Chinese state leader at the Great Hall of the People before the farewell dinner later tonight.
On Monday in Dunhuang, we visited the Mogao grottoes where we encountered some ancient Chinese civilizations dating back to the fourth century. As we were conducted round the caves, I was particularly fascinated by the image of a prince who reportedly came across some tigers who were on the throes of death as a result of hunger. According to what we were told—and please believe me, this is no fake news—the compassionate prince simply offered himself as a meal to those famished tigers!
Beginning from year October 2000 when Charles Onunaiju and I were invited to cover the first Sino-African conference in Beijing at the instance of the Chinese embassy in Nigeria, this is my 6th time in the country. And having learnt very early in my journalism career never to take anything at face value, I am quite aware that there are still some fundamental contradictions within the Chinese society. But what fascinates me about the country is that, at every epoch, there are deliberate efforts by their authorities not only to create wealth on a large scale but also to ensure a measure of equitable distribution so that more and more of their citizens can be lifted from poverty to prosperity.
As I noted in my speech on Tuesday in Dunhuang, the amazing Mogao caves are more than just treasure trove of ancient caverns; they speak to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Chinese monks of old who could carve such a long stretch of caves right into the cliff. With the incredible temples from stone carvings said to have been the efforts of only 355 monks, they also teach that enduring societies result from the sacrifices of people who, at some points in history must be prepared to pay the price, people around whom myths and legends can be built.
Given the foregoing, the goal of nation building is not necessarily to impose order on diverse peoples but rather to build consensus around forging a community where all can prosper and live together in peace despite their differences. Therefore, the lesson I keep learning from my interactions with China is that there is nothing we cannot achieve if we are ready to work together as a team in pursuit of a common goal. And that lesson will serve us well in Nigeria, especially at this most difficult period in our history.
– This Best Outside Opinion was written by Olusegun Adeniyi/Thisday