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Opinions of Monday, 16 January 2017

Columnist: Kofi Opare-Addo

Me, plagiarism and Mariamma... but I digress

In keeping with the national hysteria with the unoriginal, let me begin with Mao Zedong’s teeth. The great revolutionary had green teeth, the result of years of swilling and chewing green tea and refusing to brush. And when his physician Dr Li Zhisui suggested brushing as a cure for the green patina on his teeth Mao famously and appropriately retorted “A tiger never brushes his teeth”. In my book, anyone who skips that ritual in his morning routines is an original. Mao was an original.

But I digress…..so let’s dredge the conversations on plagiarism up from the pit of adolescent silliness where it currently resides to a more consequential adult conversation we can all embrace. But in the spirit of the visceral response to the President’s inaugural speech I will not stray too far away from the original intent of plagiarism; which is plundering of ideas to impress. And China with its long history of colonial experience, discovery, errors and triumphs provides us with a broad plank to jump off on this discussion. So here we go...

November 1978. Some sixteen months after Mao Zedong died, the recently rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping visited Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Blissfully sheltered by the Communist fantasy that he, Mao, Zhou Enlai and other survivors of “The Long March” had created for the Chinese Peasantry, he imagined the three South Asian cities will be as backward as his ancestral home in the Sichuan province. Deng studied in Europe in the 1920s so his frame of reference for modernity had all, until this trip, been those European cosmopolitan centres he knew from his days in France and Russia. But all good Communists live by two rules, stealth and opportunity. So when he ousted his rivals from influence in the Communist Party he knew it was his time to modernise China, and Singapore a small city state, provided the perfect grounds to gauge how much progress the rest of world had made during Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution.

Deng’s jaw dropped when he flew into Singapore. The kind of emotion you experience when a combination of bewilderment, envy and admiration hits you in the face when you discover on the last day of school that the quiet, dorky guy who sat in the corner of your class has a stunner for a girlfriend. As his host, Lee Kuan Yew showed him how lands recovered from the seabed and marshlands had been turned into industrial townships with shipbuilding and petrochemical facilities, Deng’s eyes wandered and his mind wondered. How could a city foundered on a geographical outcrop on the periphery of Asia develop so rapidly that it had become a major player in global finance and commerce? You see Communists work hard, but so much on the smart part so you can forgive Deng for questioning how a city not even half the size of Shanghai could pull this off. He was incredulous.

Deng was so impressed with the clean and slick planning of Singapore, that on his return he immediately established four free trade centres modelled on the Singapore template. From there China’s leap from a controlled economy to a market one was only logical. With Communist impatience to catch up with the West cranked up to a full throttle, size and scale which had always been a curse for the Chinese was turned into an advantage; mightily. The Red Dragon has never looked back to see who has been left breathless by the dust from its take off.

So from that quiet diplomatic stroll through his neighbour’s backyard Deng, keeping to our word of the moment, unapologetically plagiarised an entire economic model to set his country on a one way trip to prosperity. The Chinese suffer no moral whiplash and will not stoke up a mass hysteria over stealing intellectual property and innovation from the West. They embrace and celebrate it as if it were a conquest from their contentious relationship with the West. They call it Shan Zai, which literally means pirated goods. Most Chinese technological companies now challenging Western companies in high-end electronics began life as Shan Zai businesses. There are Chinese cities modelled on vintage European architecture, and my hunch is they were done just for the heck of it. They copy for the fun of it.

Let's take a moment to unpack the underpinning psychology to the Chinese view on Shan Zai or copying, and how that becomes an instructive template to resolve the big economic and technological questions in Ghana and Africa in general.

Like Africa, China too, to some degree became part of the European colonial enterprise at various times. As a consequence of losing the two Opium Wars in 1842 and 1858 to Britain and France, China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain and carved out into spheres of influence by European powers. It was forced to open fifteen port cities including Shanghai, as free trade zones by the European powers. Smacking their lips from that Chinese buffet, European powers will go on to perfect the recipe for pillaging weak nations at the Berlin Conference of 1884 which was convened by King Leopold to regulate trade and, ultimately, the colonisation of Africa. The Partition of Africa was set in motion some forty years prior in China. Same way the Nazi genocide was experimented by the German Empire in Namibia between 1903 and 1908.

If you throw in the Chinese sense of not being fully credited for their discoveries of the gunpowder, paper and the clock, then you begin to see the contours of their worldview. The irony here is that Europeans perfected a gunpowder technology invented in 9th century China to beat up the Chinese nine centuries later in the mid-1800s; forced them to sign agreements on papers the Chinese had invented in 100 BC. And I suspect the Chinese were reminded to keep their eyes on the clock, lest they miss their appointments with Europeans. The fall of the Qin dynasty and the Japanese experience only served as the last shake of a corked bottle. The explosion was Mao.

Before Deng’s road to Damascus epiphany in Singapore, the Koreans, (I mean Samsung Korea, not the grass and ant-eating Communists to the north), Taiwan, and Singapore had long been stretching their necks across the East China Sea to copy the Japanese. The Japanese themselves copied from the West, who had been copying from each other since the industrial revolution. The key is faced with existential issues such as disease, poor education, poor infrastructure, etc, these South Asian countries had to make a decision. Do they reinvent the wheel or utilise what is already available in the West? They built multiple centres of excellence which reversed engineered everything they could lay hands on. Today there’s nothing some of these South Asian countries cannot manufacture.

But I digress…. my point is, confronted with similar experiences like the Chinese, Ghanaians and Africans, in general, should be motivated to seek parity with the developed world by copying their technological and economic templates. Dubai and the rest of the Gulf Sheikdoms with oil lottery money are not the right examples to follow. They buy bling, the Asians copy, re-engineer the bling and sell it back to everyone.

Globalisation has democratised knowledge and made innovations readily and equally available to the hacker in mother's basement in Idaho who is plotting to embarrass politicians and the doctor who wants to save lives in the villages of India and Africa. All development is downloaded from somewhere. So let’s go for it.

On his way to study in France the 14-year-old Deng was pulled aside by his father and told “go learn knowledge and truth from the West in order to save China”… I suspect the original quotation in Mandarin will be “Go and copy to save China”

The outrage over the plagiarised speech should be re-channeled into motivating the new President to lead us into conversations that will encourage our universities and entrepreneurs copy technology, ideas and innovations to make Ghana a better place. The folks sharing the same water ponds with cattle and goats across Ghana do not care what is being copied and who is copying it. Let’s focus, people.

My view on copying changed forever during my days as a Saito teacher at Christmas in Egypt, Mambrobi Abodwe. Not particularly blessed with a high IQ, Mariamma the tiwui queen of the class perfected a workaround; incredible eyesight, great handwriting and perfect location. First, she made sure she shared a desk with Rebecca Addo and brought her bofrot every morning. And with her better than the average eyesight and the best handwriting in the class she had all her bases covered. The only head scratcher of this story is that she also copied Rebecca’s name as well. I was none the wiser until I heard Rebecca whispering back to Mariamma, your name is Mariama. The gig was up, and as I tore up her English paper she looked up at me and cried “Mr Opare better no go follow you”.

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In no particular order, this writer is an admirer of history, language and classic West African music like Gome, Nwomkro and old highlife. You can reach him at SeaNever66Dry@gmail.com