Thirty African officials visited China for 12 days in May on a pilot South-South knowledge exchange organized by the Chinese government with assistance from the World Bank. My colleague, Phil Karp, has written about the program, including the study tour around China that he accompanied . I met the officials in Beijing both before and after their travels and would like to add some personal reflections. Most of the officials had never been to China or had only attended a conference in a big city. Visiting farms, local governments, economic zones, and enterprises was a real eye-opener.
In preparation for this program I wrote a paper on Lessons of China for Africa  (pdf). Concerning what China has done, the paper anticipated fairly well some of the interesting potential lessons. One official was struck by the extent and dynamism of the private sector in China, which is not well known in the developing world. “We Africans have to make it easier to invest,” was his conclusion. Others were struck by the focus on rural development: the villages that are poor in the Chinese context have roads, power, schools, and programs to support agricultural productivity. Finally, you can’t travel in China without being impressed with the infrastructure. But several participants commented on the fact that when they finished their 3-hour bus ride on a nice expressway, the bus paid a steep toll. China has paid for its nice infrastructure by charging prices for power and roads that are high compared to other developing countries.
But what surprised me interacting with the African officials is that they seemed more interested in how China has reformed, than in what it had done. They were struck by the extent of decentralization and local government’s seriousness and commitment to reform. Many reforms in China have percolated up from the local level. Localities compete with each other to attract investment (and increasingly labor), and successful innovations spread quickly: either informally because localities want to copy what has succeeded elsewhere or formally through national programs that build on local success. The result is a very pragmatic, non-ideological approach to reform. China tries out different reforms, evaluates what works and what doesn’t, and then scales up the successes. This may be one of the best lessons from China’s success.