Sunday, 26 August 2012


"Beautiful imperialists" - a literal translation of the Chinese for "American imperialists."

Since the late 1990s China's economic engagement with Africa has extended surprisingly quickly. It often feels as if reporters and journalists are chasing to keep up with the pace of development, and to provide some sort of explanatory framework.

I am simplifying, but the standard narrative you hear and read about China-Africa relations usually goes something like this: the Chinese used to care about spreading socialism and actively supported national liberation movements in Africa, but today they only care about getting at the continent's resources, and pragmatism has supplanted principles (hence China's backing for "pariah" states like Sudan and Zimbabwe). Then we are supposed to appreciate the irony that the former liberator has become the "new colonialist."

Below is an excerpt from a BBC Newsnight report on China's role in Zambia, which I think exemplifies the sort of ahistorical and simplistic reportage of this story which is all too common.

"Are the Chinese just new colonialists trying to exploit Zambia's raw materials?" the reporter asks. The rest of the report seems to answer in the affirmative - competition from local Chinese businesses receiving subsidies from China's state-owned banks is stopping Zambia from diversifying its economy away from dependence on exports of raw materials. Presumably China does this, among other reasons, in order to secure better terms of access to these resources.

The fundamental difficulty I have with this argument is that it overstates both the coherence and the state-centric agency of China's activity on the continent - it depicts as a kind of grand master plan what has been in many ways a disjointed and spontaneous response to changes in Africa's relations with the rest of the world.

I will explain in more detail what I mean by this towards the end of this post. First, I want to examine the "first wave" of China-Africa relations in the 1950s and 1960s. Contrary to the idea that China was ever regarded by post-independence African leaders as being in the vanguard of global solidarity, it will be seen that this was the exception rather than the rule - more often that not China's interventions were seen as cynical, opportunistic and vacillating.


The first wave of decolonisation in Africa in the 1950s did not bring communist ideologues to power. There were some socialists, like Kwame Nkrumah of the newly-independent Ghana, but they recognised a need for pragmatism given their economic underdevelopment and, in many cases, weak states.

The PRC won early plaudits on this basis by officially registering its opposition to apartheid at the UN in 1950. As Gerald Segal has noted, China's own history of colonial domination meant that the course taken by post-colonial Africa had a symbolic significance far beyond its own shores: "It was not so much that China was intrinsically concerned with the individual struggles in Africa as much as it saw the continent as undergoing a stage in the revolutionary process that China had already endured."

Premier Zhou Enlai at the Bandung Conference

Having seen the Cold War heat up in Korea, there was a strong inclination amongst Africa's first post-colonial leaders that they should unite in order to transcend the bipolar capitalist/communist conflict. This feeling was given symbolic significance in 1955, at the Afro-Asian Conference of twenty-nine nations in Bandung, Indonesia.

The final agreement issued at Bandung committed its participants to uphold principles of political self-determination, national sovereignty, non-aggression and non-interference in internal affairs. It was based on an agreement reached between China and India a year earlier - the so-called 'Five Principles for Peaceful Co-existence' - and it formed the core of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), created in 1961 in opposition to alignment with either the USA or the USSR.

By grounding its opposition to imperialism in a demand for racial equality, the Bandung Conference alarmed members of the U.S. government, who feared that, against the backdrop of the "Little Rock Nine", it would become an anti-American organisation. They were sensitive to any such criticisms, which became a commonplace in Soviet propaganda films such as this one (based on a poem by Mayakovsky):

The Sino-Soviet split at the decade's end provided the greatest stimulus for Chinese involvement in the continent's politics. The CPC saw Africa as a key battleground for influence in the rest of the world, because it saw it as a test for leadership of the world communist movement. Whilst Khruschev was moderating the USSR's domestic and international policies, China could win the allegiance of Africa.

Mao outlined the "Three Worlds Theory" that underpinned the strategy at a meeting with President Kaunda of Zambia. When the world was divided into capitalist and communist states, Mao said, Africa was part of an "intermediate zone." But since the Soviets had abandoned the revolutionary cause, the struggle between the two super-powers had become less ideological and more nationalistic, which re-oriented the pattern of incentives for international alliances - red or not, states that were disadvantaged by the international status quo were natural partners:

"[T]he greatest threat to world peace lies in the rivalry of the two super powers, the USSR and U.S., for world hegemony, whereas China and other Asian, African and Latin American countries constitute the "Third World." In order to oppose hegemonism in the interest of world peace, it is necessary for China to unite first and foremost the third world countries including African countries as well as the second world countries; and the more the better."

The list of contents actually gives a nice precis of the argument:

It was as if, at least momentarily, the struggle against imperialism had eclipsed the class struggle. Initially, this convenient doctrine - "the most revolutionary states are those that are friendly with China, and China is the revolutionary leader because it is friends with so many revolutionary states" - retained the pragmatic quality of China's Bandung-era diplomacy. The historian Stuart Schram writes:

"[T]he Soviet Union embarked definitively, in 1955-6, on a policy which made the 'national bourgeoisie' the bearer of progress in the underdeveloped countries... And during the Bandung era (pre-Great Leap), China displayed a tendency to make similar concessions."

Here is some footage of Mao meeting with African leaders of various persuasions (including the Congolese President at 04:50 and Heile Selassie at 12:13):

The Chinese habit of overlooking ideological disagreements with post-colonial African governments all but collapsed during the Cultural Revolution, when China's relations with the outside world were dragged along by the currents of domestic conflict.


The Cultural Revolution forcefully settled the question that had plagued the PRC in its early years - whether to lend support to more ideologically favourable insurgents in Africa, even if this involved alienating centrist governments with whom China had diplomatic relations (in CPC parlance, the choice between a united front "from above" or "from below"). In countries where there was no absolute balance of power amongst domestic forces, China decided to take sides.

In The Penguin History of Modern China, Jonathan Fenby describes the scale and purpose of China's African entanglements:

"In a twenty-year period starting in 1963, China provided African nations with loans amounting to $2bn on very favourable terms, and sent some 150,000 workers to help on development projects... With the Chairman's long-term associate Kang Sheng playing a major directing role, the PRC spent large sums on backing its favoured revolutionaries."

Each Chinese province was assigned an African state to which it would send "barefoot doctors." In addition to aid and arms, left-wing African guerrilla groups were trained at the Nanjing Military Academy. The PLA also ran a training camp inside Ghana for training insurgents in neighbouring states still under European occupation - below is a picture of Zhou Enlai during a visit to Ghana.

Most of the aid went to the poorest, most stridently socialist yet anti-Soviet regimes, such as in Guinea, Mali, and Somalia. According to Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's Mao: The Unknown Story:

"China was not only the poorest country in the world to provide aid, but its aid was the highest ever given as a percentage of the donor country's per-capita income... [T]hey were literally handouts, as Peking constantly said that loans should be treated as gifts, or that repayment should be deferred indefinitely. As for arms, the regime liked to say "We are not arms merchants"; but this did not mean it did not export arms, only that the arms did not have to be paid for."

This new assertiveness required a new theoretical rationale. The "Three Worlds Theory" was essentially defensive, insofar as it called on "third-" and "second-world" states to align in response to a future war caused by super-power competition. China's riskier policy of intervening and undermining potential allies was justified by Mao's heir-apparent, Marshal Lin Biao.

In 1965, to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of WWII - what the Chinese refer to as "the War of Resistance Against Japan" - Lin wrote a pamphlet entitled Long Live the Victory of People's War.

In this collection of essays, Lin contends that what happened in China before 1949 is now taking place on a global scale: the "world cities" are being encircled by the "world countryside." In other words, now that China was being thoroughly revolutionised from within, the world was ripe for the oppressed to rise against their oppressors, whether they be super-power proxies or national bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, Moscow's brutal suppression of the 'Prague Spring' in 1968 provided a timely reminder of its own imperial baggage.

Once again, this was seen as a field in which China could beat the super-powers, not because of its wealth or power-projection capabilities, but because, as Deborah Brautigam has explained, China possessed authenticity, credibility and experience in guerrilla warfare tactics that had immediate applicability to African uprisings:

"In the South, Chinese theories of guerilla war had obvious relevance. And more significantly, there was the Chinese model of rural, low technology development and of self-reliance - a Third World image which neither the Russians nor the West could match."

But it came at a price. In the same year that Lin's pamphlet became the new required reading for Red Guards, the attempt to organise a second Afro-Asian summit in Algiers fell through.

The conference was due to convene in June, but a military coup only weeks beforehand deposed Algeria's independence leader Ahmed Ben Bella and left participating nations divided over whether it was still appropriate for them to attend. In a show of naked self-interest, Beijing lobbied hard for the conference to proceed as scheduled, because they were worried that any delay would give President Nasser of Egypt a chance to lobby for Russian attendance. China's diplomatic insensitivity divided the group of nations further - even President Nyere of Tanzania, ordinarily a staunch ally, denounced China's opportunism - and a follow-up to Bandung never materialised.

The post-independence struggles that China was most heavily involved in were also some of the most extensive and complex - the civil wars in Angola and in Mozambique, which were triggered by Portugal's hasty exit from southern Africa following the so-called "carnation revolution" of 1974, the bloodless coup that removed the Salazar regime from power in Lisbon.

One of the factors complicating the Angolan civil war was the attempt by South Africa's white rulers to install "friendly" governments in their neighbouring states, who would co-operate in stemming the flow of money and arms going to the independence movement inside Namibia.

Besides ethnolinguistic divisions, the three main movements for national liberation in Angola were differentiated by their Cold War backers: the MPLA were supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba (who provided ground troops), whilst the U.S. sponsored (with C.I.A. support) a tenuous alliance between the Pretoria-backed UNITA and the staunchly anti-communist FNLA.

Here is an episode from the CNN Cold War series which focuses on specific 'Third World' conflicts and provides a good overview of Cold War dynamics in Angola (starting at 20:10):

But China quickly acquired a reputation for cynical and opportunistic meddling in these countries' internal affairs, ironically because its interventions were too ideological in nature. China's professed commitment to support the most revolutionary groups in any conflict incentivised increasingly unrepresentative and extremist splinter groups to come to the fore; as these groups unravelled, China was forced to bit the bullet and switch its support to less likely allies - including the FNLA leader Holden Roberto, whom China had once dismissed as a "CIA tool" - which led to a fresh round of recriminations and accusations of "selling out."

As Alan Hutchison wrote at the time, the CPC set a trap for itself:

"The need to compromise with reality in independent Africa could be set against continuing support for revolutionary movements fighting for independence in the Portuguese territories and in southern Africa... But the facts are that Chinese support for these movements has been sparing, conditional and always given, not according to merit, but according to the dictates of the Sino-Soviet dispute... Her actions were seen as meddlesome and cynical."

Overall, then, the high-point of Chinese military support coincided with a divisive approach that alienated significant African revolutionary groups who instead aspired to pan-African solidarity. By the early 1970s most African states had won their independence and were prioritising economic growth over social revolution, which meant that those states still fighting for their independence needed heavy support from external allies - something China was unable to provide, given its own economic constraints.

Gerald Segal writes:

"States such as Zaire that were strongly anti-Soviet were lavished with praise from Beijing even though they were among the most openly pro-Western and unhelpful to revolutionary causes. China's attitude toward the conflict in the Horn of Africa in the 1970s shifted as the local participants exchanged superpower patrons... The ignominious retreat, and the subsequent inability to provide major aid in the struggles in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, did serious damage to China's position. When it came to the crunch of struggles in southern Africa, China was a peripheral actor."

Having backed their enemies, the PRC finally established diplomatic relations with the MPLA-led government of Angola in 1983.

Yet Chinese engagement with Africa during this period did yield other, more durable legacies, such as the Tanzania-Zambia Railway, or "Tazara."

At the time of its construction, the Tazara was the biggest foreign infrastructure project in Africa since the Soviets built the Aswan High Dam, using the labour of 15,000 technicians. Most of the construction technology and clearing vehicles were Chinese imports, but Chinese workers themselves made up less than a third of the workforce.

It ran for 1800km, across 2500 bridges and through 21 major tunnels, linking the landlocked Zambian copperbelt directly to the Tanzanian coast, facilitating the export of precious metals and minerals without the need to pass through white-ruled Rhodesia.

Here is a Chinese map of the seaward route:

Here is how the President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, described the project in a speech to inaugurate its construction on October 28th 1970:

"I have noticed one very odd thing about the international reactions to the railway project...Some (nations) suggest that by building this railway now, Tanzania and Zambia are coming under Chinese influence!...But this railway will be our railway...The PRC is giving an interest-free loan for the construction of the railway and provision of rolling stock... A gesture of international solidarity between the poor and the less poor of the world... When the Smith rebellion of 1965 was met by a policy of economic sanctions, the most immediate result was grave problems for newly-independent Zambia...A railway link to the port of Dar-es-Salaam is vital for the full implementation of Zambia's policy of linking herself to the free African states of the north."

Nevertheless, these high-profile projects were the exception rather than the rule, as China sharply curtailed its aid to Africa from the late '70s. More recently, this BBC documentary foreshadows the return of Chinese technicians to upgrade the railway, which has re-ignited the same kind of accusations that Nyerere rejected over forty years ago:


Whilst China seemed to abandon Africa in the late Mao, and early post-Mao, period in order to focus on its ailing domestic economy, the CPC leadership came to believe that petroleum was the country's only industry with the potential for immediate expansion.

Yu Qiuli inspecting equipment

In order to benefit from existing reserves, and to bring new ones on tap, China needed Western technology and know-how. And this, in turn, required a softening in China's foreign policy stance - most notably on the issue of Taiwan.

Therefore, the faction in the CPC leadership adocateing the pursuit of rapid economic growth also advocated greater openness to foreign expertise, and the pursuit of warmer diplomatic relations with economically necessary partners - they were called the "petroleum clique" and they were led by well-positioned industry bureaucrats like the State Planning Commissioner, Yu Qiuli.

In his book The Search for Modern China, Jonathan D. Spence describes the group's importance in the key debates that shaped China's "reform and opening":

"[A]s the oilfields they had developed proved to be one of the only growth sectors of the Chinese economy, and Mao began to turn against Lin Biao and some of the more insistently radical exponents of complete self-reliance, the "Petroleum Group" (as some called them) came back into favour. They knew that if China were to continue to expand oil production at the rate desired by the top leadership, it would require major initiatives in offshore exploration and drilling, and for this China had neither the resources nor the technology. Foreign skills would be essential, and in petroleum technology the U.S. was the proven world leader."

This short film by U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration illustrates some of the ways in which the U.S. was pushing the boundaries in ways that would have especially interested Chinese policymakers confronting decades of under-resourced and over-used oilfields - policymakers who were, according to Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael Oksenberg, searching for "equipment which permitted improved secondary and tertiary development of a field."

Besides American participants, Japanese oil industry experts also got involved in stepping-up China's industry. As Deborah Brautigam has noted (in the video further down), the model for Japanese involvement bears a striking resemblance to the basis of contemporary Chinese involvement in Africa's primary resources and infrastructure - loans for access to technology and expertise were extended in return for future exports of pre-existing oil reserves.

Bohai Gulf oil platform

This is the present arrangement China has with the Angolan government, as described in David Smith's The Dragon and the Elephant:

"Angola, which exports 25% of its oil output to China, has benefited from $2bn of loans from Beijing, which is being used to fund Chinese-built railways, roads, schools, hospitals and lay a fibre-optic network. China will also train Angolan telecommunications workers; all in return for a guarantee of future oil supplies."

 China learned from Japanese practices in more ways than one: Bill Emmott has observed in Rivals that, "China's overseas aid programme has begun to evolve in the same sort of way as Japanese aid during the 1960s and 1970s: it is being used as an adjunct to commercial investments, especially in resources development."

Gulf of Guinea oil platform, Angola
In spite of their having made possible extensive foreign involvement in a key industry, the influence of the "petroleum clique" rose and fell with the expectation of an upwards trend in world oil prices. In Burying Mao, Richard Baum writes:

"The 'petroleum group' had promoted accelerated deficit spending as a means of stimulating rapid growth in heavy industry, a strategy that had putatively caused serious sectoral imbalances, budget deficits, and fiscal disarray; in the latter half of 1979 they found themselves being squeezed progressively out of the decision-making loop."


I have tried to show in the preceding section how changing expectations of global demand and supply led to a rebalancing of power and influence among competing ministries in the Chinese state, and that once "the near monopoly of petroleum was broken", opportunities opened up for a more evenly balanced growth strategy. Here is how Liberthal and Oksenberg summarise this argument:

"The era in which the petroleum industry and those who led it set the pace for the energy sector and the entire economy seems to have ended... Credibility is helpful but not sufficient... [E]nergy policies are adopted when the top leaders believed the proposed policies promise an attractive solution to the problems they perceive at the moment, make use of existing opportunities, support their ideological preferences and power needs, and are congruent with the organisational missions of the pertinent ministries. From this perspective, the petroleum sector occupied a different and less priveleged position in the mid-1980s."

Chinese-built junction, Kenya
I also think there are lessons to draw from China's experiences on the other end of this relationship for China-Africa relations today. In particular, I think that a close examination of these bilateral relationships suggests an awareness on the part of the Chinese state that both partners are deeply interdependent - China needs African resources and fuel to sustain (or at least smooth) its growth rate, whilst Africa needs China's labour and savings surplus to reverse decades of de-industrialisation and degraded infrastructure.

As the LSE China specialist Chris Alden has noted:

"With African resources becoming ever more important to the health of the Chinese economy, Beijing's domestic policy of delivering greater prosperity at home, on the back of sometimes painful economic reforms, without relinquishing significant political control is arguably in danger of becoming hostage to the fortunes of its international forays in places like Africa."

This is the level at which expectations appear to be crucial, and at which I think we have to be cautious about inferring political influence from quantitative economic data (according to Emmott, "African exports to China grew from $5.5bn in 2000 to $28.8bn in 2006...In the same period, Africa's imports from China grew from $5.1bn to $26.7bn").

If China's trading partners in Africa were to sever their ties, this would likely reduce Chinese growth rates, and, as a knock-on effect, lower global growth, which in turn would be expected to reduce world prices for Africa's raw materials. It would also likely have some effect on the so-called "resource curse" in particular African states that are overly reliant on a few natural resources to power their economies.

Hence it seems to me that if the China-Africa economic relationship carries the risk of exacerbating certain anti-developmental processes already at work on the continent, we should also remember that it contains the prospect of overcoming these. For example, Alden notes that:

"[China's] investment outreach commenced at roughly the same time as the West began to reduce its exposure to Africa... [D]iversifying sources of foreign investment, an explicit policy pursued by oil producers like Angola and Nigeria, has contributed to opportunities to extract better terms from donors and lenders alike."

I cannot say which course these extraordinary and flourishing relationships will follow, whether it will really be, as the CPC presents it, "win-win cooperation" (in any case, it is ill-advised to generalise for the continent as a whole).

But I agree with Deborah Brautigam - author of The Dragon's Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa - that a crucial determinant seems to be the political will of individual African states to challenge Chinese investors where national interests are imperfectly aligned, to enforce decent working conditions and wages (such as the Ethiopian government has done), and to investigate reports of abuses by Chinese managers and workers without succumbing to dangerous populism. Moreover, it is notable that China stopped opposing the deployment of peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan under pressure from a galvanised African Union, rather than from other external actors.

Here is a talk she gave during an IQ-squared debate last year, opposing the motion "Beware of the dragon: Africa should not look to China":

According to Alden, China is seen as a consistent and reliable trading partner on the continent, in contrast with Western development agencies which are perceived as being too short-term oriented: "[W]hat is striking about China's discourse about development partnership is that it has proved to be notably resilient in being constant over time as opposed to the chameleon pattern of shifting Western development discourse." This needs to be borne in mind whenever we hear about Chinese-built "ghost cities" in places like Angola; substantial risks are being borne by both sides.

On balance, I am hopeful for the future of China-Africa relations. I hope that it can move beyond trite statements about the inherent shared interests of underdeveloped nations and become a creative, long-term partnership based on an honest recognition of shared, and divergent, interests. To steal a phrase from Zhou Enlai, it is still to early to tell.

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