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The Past in the Present: Historical and Rhetorical Lineages in China's Relations with Africa*

  • Julia C. Strauss

China's official rhetoric on its relations with Africa is important; it frames, legitimates and renders comprehensible its foreign policy in this ever-important area of the world. This article explores the following puzzle: why China's rhetoric on its involvement with Africa has retained substantial continuities with the Maoist past, when virtually every other aspect of Maoism has been officially repudiated. Despite the burgeoning layers of complexity in China's increasing involvement in Africa, a set of surprisingly long-lived principles of non-interference, mutuality, friendship, non-conditional aid and analogous suffering at the hands of imperialism from the early 1960s to the present continue to be propagated. Newer notions of complementarity and international division of labour are beginning to come in, but the older rhetoric still dominates official discourse, at least in part because it continues to appeal to domestic Chinese audiences.

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1 See Snow, Philip, The Star Raft: China's Encounter with Africa (London: Weidenfelt and Nicolson, 1988), particularly p. 78, map 3, “Chinese support for African insurrections since 1949,” and pp. 121–34.

2 One contemporary written example of this is Tian Peiliang, “China and Africa in the new period,” at, accessed 3 June 2008. Tian is the director of the Department of Asian, African and Latin American Affairs at the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs. An arguably more influential source is CCTV, which has produced a series of documentaries on China and Africa entitled ChinaAfrica: Sharing A Common Fate, of which one instalment is “Africa–China trade: a history” and another is “China's investment in Africa.” Both are currently available on YouTube. See also Snow, The Star Raft, pp. 1–36. Zhou Enlai's address to a mass rally in Mogadishu in 1964 also grounded the contacts between the Somali and Chinese people in the Zheng He visits. “Premier Chou En-lai: revolutionary prospects in Africa excellent!” text reproduced in Peking Review, No. 7, 14 February 1964.

3 “A chronology of China–Africa relations – Beijing review,”, accessed 17 June 2008.

4 Anshan, Li, “African studies in China in the 20th century: a historiographical survey,African Studies Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (2005).

5 “Premier Chou En-lai answers newsmen's questions in Accra,” Peking Review, No. 4, 24 January 1964, pp. 15–16.

6 Extremely embarrassingly, given China's effusive support for the FLN in general and Ben Bella in particular, less than two years after this speech China caused widespread offence in Africa when, desperate to stage a second Bandung conference in Algiers later in 1965, it raced to recognize the new military government in Algeria that had just deposed Ben Bella. Zhou Enlai, “African people's example of daring to wage armed struggle and seize victory: Premier Chou En-lai addresses the Algerian FLN meeting,” full text reproduced in Peking Review, No. 1, 3 January 1964.

7 “Premier Chou En-lai's visit to East Africa,” Peking Review, No. 6, 7 February 1965, p. 29.

8 Ibid. p. 28.

9 Fitzgerald, John, Awakening China: Politics, Culture and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996).

10 “Premier Chou En-lai: revolutionary prospects in Africa excellent!”

11 Ibid.

12 Snow, The Star Raft, p. 170.

13 See Monson, Jamie, Africa's Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), and “One helps one, two become red: Chinese and Africans at work on the TAZARA railway, 1965–1986,” work in progress.

14 “Friendship in hard struggle: account of China's surveying and designing team which helps build the Tanzania–Zambia railway,” Peking Review, No. 43, 24 October 1969, pp. 32–33.

15 See in particular “Seeds of friendship – Chinese agricultural technicians help build rice and tobacco experimental station in Somalia,” Peking Review, No. 48, 28 November 1969.

16 “A chronology of China–Africa relations – Beijing review,” and an extended first segment in the CCTV documentary, “China's investment in Africa,” part of the China and Africa, Sharing a Common Fate documentary series. This was broadcast on CCTV 9 in December 2007, and has since been posted on YouTube by geneofisis.

17 Forum on China–Africa Co-operation “Chinese, Tanzanian PMs visit cemetery of Chinese martyrs,” 26 June 2006,, accessed 16 June 2008.

18 “Premier Zhao gives new conference in Dar es Salaam,” Beijing Review, No. 5, 31 January 1983.

19 “Premier Zhao gives new conference in Dar es Salaam,” Beijing Review, No. 4, 24 January 1983, p. 19.

20 “Premier Zhao on his African tour,” p. 24.

21 The following analysis is taken from “Towards a new historical milestone in Sino-African friendship,” translated in Beijing Review, Vol. 39, No. 22, 27 May–2 June 1996, pp. 7–9.

22 See particularly Alden, Christopher, China in Africa (London: Zed, 2007), pp. 2732, and Kenneth King, “Aid within the wider China–Africa partnership: a view from the Beijing summit,” available at,Kenneth.pdf, accessed 8 February 2008.

23 Special thanks to Dan Large for pointing this out.

24 For this last set of pledges, see Hu Jintao, “Address to the Forum on China–Africa Co-operation at the opening ceremony of the Beijing summit,” Beijing, 4 November 2006, available in full text at http:/, accessed 1 July 2008.

25 Jiang Zemin, “China and Africa usher in a new century together,” speech at the opening ceremony at the Forum on China–Africa Co-operation, Beijing, September 2000, http://focac.or/eng/wjjh/t404120.htm, accessed 16 June 2008; this wording was repeated verbatim by Wen Jiabao at the opening ceremony for FOCAC in Addis Ababa, 15 December 2003,, accessed 16 June 2008.

26 Zhu Rongji, “Strengthen solidarity, enhance co-operation and pursue common development,” speech given at the closing ceremony of FOCAC, Beijing, 12 October 2002,, accessed 16 June 2008.

27 Ibid.

28 untitled document, accessed 29 December 2008.

29 “Chairperson Konaré urges African Foreign Affairs Ministers to respect the principles of democracy,” Addis Ababa, 28 January 2008,, accessed 29 December 2008.

* Special thanks are due to Dan Large, Jamie Monson and R. Bin Wong for their careful readings of earlier versions of this paper.

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The China Quarterly
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  • EISSN: 1468-2648
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