Agriculture is a rapidly growing arena for China's economic engagement in Africa. Drawing on new field research in East and West Africa, and in Beijing and Baoding, China, as well as earlier archival research, this article investigates the dimensions of China's agricultural engagement, placing it in historical perspective. It traces the changes and continuities in China's policies in rural Africa since the 1960s, as Chinese policies moved from fraternal socialism to amicable capitalism. Beginning in the 1980s, the emphasis on aid as mutual benefit began to blur the lines between aid, south–south co-operation and investment. Today, Beijing has established at least 14 new agro-technical demonstration stations using an unusual public–private model that policy makers hope will assist sustainability. At the same time, a stirring of interest among land-scarce Chinese farmers and investors in developing farms in sub-Saharan Africa evokes a mix of anticipation and unease.