By Kumbukilani Phiri
Growing up, I used to like Chinese Kungfu movies more especially the Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jack Chan ones. It was also common for us to imitate the actors by organising some karate fights by the street. Therefore, during my childhood days, the only thing I knew about China was Kungfu. To me the Chinese were only good at fighting and nothing else. Sometimes, when I saw a Chinese person walking on the street, I would get scared that he may randomly start kicking people around.
It wasn’t until I finished my High School and got awarded a scholarship to go and study in China that my entire perceptive changed. Well, when we arrived in China in the early 2000, China was undergoing unprecedented development in all sectors of the economy. One thing that struck me was their hard work. It was always common to see the Chinese working even in the middle of the night. Today, you would wake up and find a Chinese company moving on site to construct some building, before you even realise it, a multi storey building is already finished. The workers looked tireless and purposeful. I couldn’t understand their motivation. It was just amazing. One day after school, I decided to ask one of my Chinese friends about why the Chinese people worked so hard with so much energy. His response has left a very big impact on me, he said, “Phiri, China has a population of 1.5 billion people, the competition for everyone here is very fierce because we compete for everything, so for one to survive he or she needs to be exceptional and hardworking”. He also reminded me that, just a few years back, the Chinese were very poor and most families could not afford a decent meal. As late as the 70s, the Chinese were still rationing food as there was a serious feminine caused by Chairman Mao’s socialist policies. It is believed that the feminine left over 40 million people dead from malnutrition related diseases. History also shows that, when China was sending her people to come and help us build the Tazara railway in the 70s, an average Zambian was well off compared to their Chinese counterparts. Therefore, that troubled past of the Chinese and the competition that has been brought about by their big population has been the motivation for most of them to work hard. This is reason why we have seen them take over almost every sector of the world economy.
Coming back to ourselves, we are like a team that lacks talent, stamina, preparation, strategy and ambition, and then all of a sudden we are asked to play with a team (China) that has been grilled for years, is well prepared, well connected, has money and has a very clear strategy on how to outdo us. Within a few minutes into the game we are already overwhelmed and failing to cope. Almost our entire team is raising hands trying to ask the referee to stop the game and punish the other team for being either too good at the game or being too hard on us.
Now, here is the thing, currently the Chinese belong to one of the most hardworking and productive people and their country is the second largest economy in the world, which means they have a lot of resources (finances) at their disposal. They are able to work for long hours and have a strong affinity for success. When a Chinese leaves his/her home to work in another town or country, it is almost a taboo for him/her to go back home empty handed. They make sure that they succeed at whatever they are doing so that they can carry something back home. Therefore, when they come here, they don’t come for jokes, they are here for serious business. Give them land and they will start producing more food than us within a very short period of time. A Chinese farmer works in the field every day from morning to evening, yet for most of us locals we only work in our fields during the rain season after which we abandon our fields. The Chinese will ensure that they create water reservoirs, so that they can grow crops even during the dry season. For them, the weather is never a limit to producing a bumper harvest.
For example, Zambians have been rearing chickens for many years; however, the coming in of the Chinese has brought a lot of problems. Many Zambian farmers have already cried foul that their industry is being taken over by the Chinese. We can also talk of other industries like trading, construction, manufacturing, etc. The Chinese have almost taken over. Of course many of us will argue that they succeed because of having access to cheap financing and large networks in China. However, one can still argue that without their hard work and resilience, they could not have easily succeeded because we have more advantages than them. For instance, most Chinese can hardly speak or write in English, they lack prior market understanding, have no local networks and connections. Therefore, the critical problem that we have as a people is the lack of preparedness, lack of strategy; lack of ambition, a bad work culture and attitude. Most of us easily get satisfied with simple things. We do not invest back into our businesses to improve our production processes and quality. We would rather buy the next fancy phone or car. This is different from our friends.
The good news is that, the government has heard our cries. Last year; the President signed an SI No. 1 of 2017 that is called ‘The Citizen Economic Empowerment (Reservation Scheme) Regulations, 2017 which is aimed at prescribing reserved schemes and businesses exclusively for Zambians. In as much as this SI is good for us as locals, its purpose will not be attained if we do not change our culture and attitude towards work. If we do not work hard and if we do not improve both our production levels and quality, we will still fail to compete in the global business environment. Remember Zambia is still a signatory to a number of trade treaties within the region and internationally. We will not be surprised that it will become cheaper to import chickens from China than to buy them locally because our farmers will fail to produce chickens cheaply.
In as much as our Chinese comrades are our serious competition now, we still have a lot to learn from them. Let us learn their simplicity, hard work, resilience and hunger for high production and success. This is the only way we will be able to improve our own production and contribute more to the GDP of our country.