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China-Africa and an Economic Transformation$

Arkebe Oqubay and Justin Yifu Lin

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198830504

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: June 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198830504.001.0001

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China–Africa Ties in Historical Context

China–Africa Ties in Historical Context

(p.61) Chapter 4 China–Africa Ties in Historical Context
China-Africa and an Economic Transformation

David H. Shinn

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

From Mao Zedong’s seizure of power in 1949 until the early 1990s, China focused more intensely on its political relationship with Africa than its economic ties. During this period China was more concerned about support for African liberation movements, competition with Taiwan, the ‘One China’ principle, and dealing with internal challenges such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The Deng Xiaoping era witnessed a reduction of China’s engagement in Africa while the Jiang Zemin period set the stage for significant advancement. By Hu Jintao’s arrival early in the twenty-first century, the China–Africa relationship had become based predominantly on economic interests, especially China’s desire to access African raw materials. It began with trade and expanded into Chinese outward investment in Africa. By 2009, China had overtaken the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. So far, the Xi Jinping era has resulted in a greater focus on protection of Chinese interests in Africa, security cooperation, and a levelling off and even decline in China’s economic engagement.

Keywords:   aid, diplomacy, FOCAC, history, investment, security, soft power, trade

4.1 Introduction

China began trading with North-east Africa before the Christian era. Several Chinese travellers reportedly visited Africa during the early part of the Christian era. China’s first significant contact with Africa occurred during the Ming Dynasty when the fifth and sixth voyages of the famous Zheng He naval fleet reached the north-east coast of Africa during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The voyages were, however, an anachronism in Chinese history and were followed by a return to China’s inward-looking approach to the rest of the world (Snow, 1988: 30–1). A hiatus in the China–Africa relationship then set in for several centuries until Chinese labourers and traders came to several regions of Africa beginning in the latter part of the eighteenth century (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 17–26).

After taking power in 1912, Sun Yat Sen and the Republic of China (ROC) developed official relations with South Africa, where a Chinese community had become well established. South Africa soon became and remains the country with the largest number of persons of Chinese origin on the African continent. Most of the early migrants retained a strong allegiance to China and supported the Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) united the Chinese community in South Africa with China and led to fund-raising campaigns in support of the ROC (Yap and Man, 1996: 255–77). The ROC had brief interaction with independent Liberia and was in contact with the Chinese community in the French colony of Madagascar. Challenges to its ability to rule China severely limited its engagement with Africa (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 26–9).

Relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Africa were slow to develop because of Mao Zedong’s need to consolidate power and the (p.62) fact that there were few independent African nations in 1949. Several themes subsequently developed in the China–Africa relationship as it became more intense.

First, there have been different phases in China’s relations with Africa that depend largely on global issues, and political and economic developments in China, not in Africa. They began with China’s support for African revolutionary movements, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Cold War,and the Sino-Soviet split during the leadership of Mao Zedong. This was followed by China’s more pragmatic foreign policy, a focus on China’s domestic reform, and a pulling back from Africa under Deng Xiaoping. Jiang Zemin, partly concerned by negative fallout from the Tiananmen Square events, again reached out to Africa and set the stage for a major expansion of the China–Africa relationship. Hu Jintao took advantage of his efforts and significantly increased China’s trade, aid, and investment with Africa. Xi Jinping has continued the economic engagement begun by Hu Jintao and expanded China’s involvement in the security and political sectors, especially party-to-party cooperation.

Second, implicit in the first theme, it is nearly always China that initiates important developments in the China–Africa relationship. This is not surprising and could also be said for the US relationship with Africa. A single large and powerful country can more easily initiate ideas and projects than can fifty-four countries, many of which are small and weak. Although the African Union is slowly improving its ability to speak for the continent, it is not even close to functioning like a national government.

Third, the China–Africa relationship has always been asymmetric. The second theme is the most obvious manifestation of this asymmetry. Interestingly, however, economic but not political asymmetry once favoured Africa. For example, from 1980 to 1984, Africa’s global merchandise exports averaged US$79 billion annually. In 1983, China exported only US$50 billion worth of goods. In the years immediately after Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, even the economies of South Africa and Egypt were probably stronger than the economy of China. By the 1990s, however, China had a significant political and economic advantage over African countries individually and collectively. In 2016, China’s global merchandise trade was US$3.7 trillion; Africa’s was US$790 million. As with the United States, it is a highly asymmetric relationship that has only increased with the passage of time.

4.2 Mao Zedong and Relations with Africa (1949–76)

Although I am not familiar with Africa, as I see it, according to the circumstances of the past ten years, it can be said that there will be still greater (p.63) changes in the next ten years…Asia, Africa, and Latin America, these three continents all have conditions for revolution at the present time.

(Comment by Mao Zedong to a visitor from Zanzibar in 1964)

It is our African brothers who have carried us into the UN.

(Quotation attributed to Mao Zedong in 1971 after the PRC received from African countries 34 per cent of UN votes to replace Taiwan)

The seizure of power by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949 did not result immediately in any significant outreach to Africa. Mao Zedong was preoccupied with consolidating his rule in the early years of the new regime. In addition, African countries only began to become independent in significant numbers when Sudan, Tunisia, and Morocco led the way in 1956 followed by Ghana in 1957 and Guinea in 1958. The floodgates opened with seventeen more independent countries in 1960.

During its first several decades, the PRC struggled economically and could offer only limited assistance to Africa. Trade with Africa was modest in the early years and did not begin to rise until the 1990s (Larkin, 1971: 87–96; Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 112). China’s foreign direct investment was also negligible. Consequently, China emphasized the establishment of diplomatic relations with independent African states, strong political ties with ideologically like-minded African governments, and support for African liberation movements aimed at ending colonial rule.

The run-up to the 1955 Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia, marked the PRC’s first serious involvement in Africa. Premier Zhou Enlai led the Chinese delegation, which met representatives from six African countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, and soon to be independent Sudan and Ghana. Zhou Enlai convinced the participants to incorporate the PRC’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence into the Ten Principles of Bandung. The original five principles remain essential to China’s foreign policy. They include mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence (Shinn and Eisenman 2012: 33).

China used Bandung to open trade talks with Egypt, to speak out against colonialism and imperialism in Africa, and to support independence movements in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Zhou Enlai also upheld Egypt’s claim to the Suez Canal as a crisis approached with the United Kingdom and France over control of the canal. China provided Egypt with a US$5 million loan, a first for China in Africa, and called on the United Kingdom and France to end their aggression. Bandung was a watershed for Chinese diplomacy, especially its relations with Africa (Larkin, 1971: 16–26; Nasser-Eddine, 1972: 60–94, 117–20).

(p.64) China–Africa trade was primarily an extension of political relations. It served as the foundation for China–Egypt relations. In 1956, China opened a trade office in Cairo, which served as the focus for CPC outreach to African liberation movements and helped expand relations with newly independent Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Sudan. China’s purchase of cotton from Egypt played a role in stabilizing Egypt’s economy in a time of crisis. In 1960, China’s trade with Egypt alone totalled US$69 million, which was more than its trade with all of the rest of Africa.

Following Bandung, China decided to expand its outreach to African and Asian countries. It sent a delegation to the first Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO) conference in Cairo which began towards the end of 1957. Afro-Asian solidarity soon became an essential component of China’s foreign policy and its engagement with Africa (Ogunsanwo, 1974: 40–4; Neuhauser, 1968). Reflecting the ideology of Mao, China used the forum increasingly to attack US imperialism as a dangerous enemy of African independence. The Cold War loomed large in China’s policies towards Africa throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1960, at the second AAPSO conference in Conakry, Guinea, China solidified its ties with an increasing number of independent African nations, but there were also growing signs of friction between China and the Soviet Union. China concluded that the Soviet Union should not be permitted to take part in the organization. AAPSO members were reluctant to take sides in the Sino-Soviet dispute, which in 1963 dominated the third AAPSO conference in Moshi, Tanzania. The PRC portrayed itself as more revolutionary than the Soviet Union; the conflict alarmed many African countries which wanted good relations with both the Soviet Union and China. The Afro-Asian movement never fully recovered from the Sino-Soviet hostility that occurred in 1965 at the fourth AAPSO conference in Winneba, Ghana (Neuhauser, 1968; Ogunsanwo, 1974: 94–8, 165–9). China also occasionally supported left-wing rebel movements that opposed conservative, independent governments in countries such as Niger, Rwanda, and Cameroon (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 245, 298, 305–6).

As more African countries became independent and joined the United Nations, an early goal of China was to obtain their support to replace the Republic of China on the UN Security Council. The PRC devoted considerable effort to pursuing diplomatic recognition throughout the continent as this almost always resulted in backing for its UN Security Council bid. In 1956, Egypt was the first African country to recognize the PRC followed two years later by Morocco and Algeria. China’s support for African liberation movements began with Algeria’s Front de Libération Nationale and quickly expanded to at least one revolutionary group in nearly every country in Africa that was forcibly trying to remove colonialism. Zhou Enlai and other Chinese (p.65) officials argued that Africa was engulfed in a wave of revolutionary war that deserved China’s support (Adie, 1964: 53–4; Larkin, 1971: 38–9).

This was an era when the CPC played an unusually important role in the development of relations with Africa. The party created a series of ‘front’ organizations that conducted much of China’s interaction with African countries. One of the best known was the Chinese-African People’s Friendship Association, which was created in 1960 to promote exchanges and cooperation between China and Africa. Other examples were the All-China Students’ Federation and China Islamic Association (Larkin, 1971: 213–21; Ogunsanwo, 1974: 97; Eisenman, 2018). The latter continues to function today, as do many country-specific friendship associations. These organizations are relatively inexpensive to operate and emphasize face-to-face contact between Chinese and Africans.

Zhou Enlai’s historic ten-country visit to Africa at the end of 1963 and beginning of 1964 marked another important stage in China–Africa relations. It signalled the beginning of a policy emphasizing the importance of regular high-level contact with African leaders. Zhou Enlai used the Africa tour to announce the five principles guiding China’s relations with African and Arab countries, principles that remain in effect and have been modified only slightly over the years (China, 2002):

  • China supports the African and Arab peoples in their struggle to oppose imperialism and old and new colonialism and to win and safeguard national independence.

  • It supports the pursuance of a policy of peace, neutrality and non-alignment by the governments of the African and Arab countries.

  • It supports the desire of the African and Arab peoples to achieve unity and solidarity in the manner of their own choice.

  • It supports the African and Arab countries in their efforts to settle their disputes through peaceful consultations.

  • It holds that the sovereignty of the African and Arab countries should be respected by all other countries.

On the same visit to Africa, Zhou Enlai presented eight principles governing China’s foreign aid. They emphasized mutual benefit, national sovereignty, interest-free or low interest loans, self-reliance of recipient countries, quick results, high quality, technology transfer, and modest living conditions for Chinese experts (China, 2002).

China professes that it continues to follow these principles, although arguably not all of them are being fully observed. For example, China’s loans have always been tied to Chinese companies, materials, and some labour. This constitutes economic conditionality. African governments have rarely (p.66) complained about the tying of loans to Chinese companies and materials, but in recent years they have insisted on a reduction in the percentage of Chinese labour allowed on the projects. Complaints in the independent African press regularly appear about the quality of some Chinese projects.

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 marked a new phase in the China–Africa relationship. China called for world revolution and the promotion of wars of national liberation. The harshest phase of the Cultural Revolution lasted through 1969; it continued in a milder form until Mao’s death in September 1976 and the purge of the Gang of Four a month later.

The impact of the Cultural Revolution on Africa was significant and coincided with the overthrow of governments in Dahomey (now Benin) and the Central African Republic. The new governments in both countries expelled PRC embassy personnel. In 1966, President Kwame Nkrumah, who had allowed China to train African revolutionaries in Ghana, was removed from power while visiting China. The new government in Accra immediately sent 430 Chinese staff, including thirteen guerrilla warfare instructors, back to China. By the end of the year, Ghana charged that China was supporting an attempt by Nkrumah to return to power; Beijing then closed its embassy. During the Cultural Revolution there was a sharp drop in high-level visits by Africans to China and senior Chinese to Africa. By 1969, four fewer African countries recognized the PRC than in 1965 (Barnouin and Yu, 1998: 47; Ogunsanwo, 1974: 180–240).

By the mid-1960s, the distribution of The Quotations of Chairman Mao became one of the highest priorities of China’s embassies, including those in Africa. The goal was to demonstrate Maoism’s universal applicability and raise Mao to the level of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin (Eisenman, 2018). While the Little Red Book became ubiquitous throughout Africa, the ideology did not resonate and many Africans treated the campaign with derision.

The independence of a growing number of African nations in the early 1960s provided an opportunity for China to advance its efforts to replace Taiwan at the United Nations. By the early 1970s, China abandoned its support for African revolutionary movements, thus improving its ability to establish relations with more conservative governments. In 1971, the United States made known to the world that it had begun the process of normalizing relations with Beijing, signalling to its allies in Africa that its support for Taiwan was waning.

China began to pursue a more pragmatic policy in Africa and achieved a huge political victory in October 1971—admission to the United Nations and replacement of the Republic of China on the Security Council. Beijing received support from twenty-six African countries; only fifteen voted with Taipei. Ten of the fifteen countries that supported Taipei recognized Beijing in (p.67) the next few years. China quickly repaired the damage to relations with Africa caused by the Cultural Revolution. It increased significantly the number of friendship, cultural, technical, and governmental delegations visiting Africa. China ended support for revolutionary groups trying to topple established African governments. It began to work closely with African governments irrespective of political ideology, a policy that continues to the present day (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 40–1).

While the United States was the primary focus of China’s international attacks in the 1960s, the Soviet Union occupied that position in the 1970s. From Beijing’s point of view, the Soviet Union replaced the United States as the country working hardest to dominate world power. China believed the world and Africa perceived Moscow in the 1970s as the leader of imperialism. Its criticism of the United States continued, but to a lesser extent than its condemnation of the Soviet Union (Yu, 1977: 104–5). This was in line with Mao’s Three Worlds Theory whereby the Soviet Union and United States sought world hegemony. Beijing argued that real power resided in a united Third World that avoids the plunder of its natural resources by the two superpowers (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 43).

China has never published bilateral aid numbers, preferring to treat the subject as a state secret. The cumulative total of China’s aid to Africa from 1956 through to the end of the Mao era in 1976 is estimated at just over US$2.4 billion, most of it in the form of interest-free loans. The single largest project was the construction of the railway from Tanzania’s port of Dar es Salaam to the copper fields of Zambia. This was China’s premier effort in Africa and continues to be hailed as one of the best examples of China–Africa cooperation. While clearly a political success, the railway has experienced numerous management problems and a steady decline in both passenger and freight traffic. Other major recipients of China’s aid from 1956 to 1976, in descending order, were Somalia, Egypt, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Algeria, Ethiopia, Guinea, and Mauritania. Aid levels peaked in the 1970 to 1975 period and then dropped sharply at the end of Mao’s reign. The end of funding for the Tanzania–Zambia railway, an internal power struggle, and severe earthquakes in China in 1976 contributed to diminished aid to Africa. Figures are not available for actual loan disbursements or loan repayments by these countries, but China has a track record of rescheduling and even cancelling debt on interest-free loans (Bartke, 1975: 10–11; Iimi et al., 2017: 7; Yu Fai, 1984: 172–4, 182).

One of China’s most successful aid programmes has been the sending of medical teams to Africa. The first team from Hubei Province arrived in Algeria in 1963. Algeria has been paired ever since with Hubei Province, which has continued to send teams annually to Algeria and subsequently began sending them to Lesotho. Other provinces began sending teams to paired African (p.68) countries; since the beginning of the programme, at least forty-four African countries have received the teams (Li, 2011). High-profile sports stadiums, conference halls, and friendship palaces were also a common feature of China’s aid programme (OECD, 1987: 13).

From 1961 to 1971, China was only the seventh-largest source of arms exported to Africa after the Soviet Union, France, the United States, United Kingdom, West Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Tanzania received the overwhelming majority while modest quantities went to Algeria, Congo-Brazzaville, and Guinea. There was a significant increase in Chinese military assistance in the early 1970s. The major recipients were Tanzania, Zaire, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Egypt, Guinea, Sudan, Tunisia, and Zambia. The arms transfers included fighter aircraft, patrol boats, tanks, anti-aircraft guns, small arms, and ammunition. Training African military personnel also became an important part of China’s engagement. From 1955 to 1979, China trained almost three thousand African soldiers from at least thirteen countries (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 165–6).

By the mid-1960s, Africa’s percentage of China’s foreign trade had reached about 10 per cent. This reflected the success of China’s political outreach, particularly to North Africa. But the commanding role of the colonial powers sharply limited the percentage of Africa’s total trade with China, just over 1 per cent in the mid-1960s. While China–Africa trade fell between 1966 and 1969, it still represented 7 to 8 per cent of China’s total trade but barely 1 per cent of Africa’s total trade. Except for agricultural products, Africa did not have much that China was interested in purchasing. Most of Africa’s rich oil and mineral resources had not yet been discovered and, in any event, China’s economy was not in a position to use them. China’s imports from Africa remained static through the end of the Mao era, although its exports to Africa grew modestly. As a result, Africa experienced a trade deficit with China during the first six years of the 1970s (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 106–11).

Mao’s hand-picked successor, Hua Guofeng, held power for just over two years and demonstrated little interest in strengthening relations with Africa. He is best known for reviving a grandiose plan known as the Four Modernizations (agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defence) and the policy of Two Whatevers, i.e. to follow whatever instructions Mao left before his death.

4.3 Deng Xiaoping and the Domestic Reform Era (1978–92)

African countries should work out strategies and policies for development in accordance with actual conditions in each country.

(Comment by Deng Xiaoping to visiting Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in 1989)

(p.69) Deng Xiaoping became China’s general secretary of the CPC Central Committee at the end of 1978 and held the position until late 1989. He is usually considered China’s ‘paramount leader’ until 1992. He formally launched and highlighted the Four Modernizations, which marked the beginning of the reform era and its focus on domestic policy. During the Deng era, China prioritized internal economic modernization. Africa’s failure to open itself to international markets further distanced it from China’s goals. While China maintained cordial relations with most African countries, trade and aid stagnated. China’s foreign direct investment did not become an important factor in the relationship. Beijing’s goal was to modernize as quickly as possible; Africa had a minimal role in these plans, especially during the second half of the 1980s (Taylor, 1998: 443–4).

In 1982, the Twelfth National Congress of the CPC shifted China’s global policy from ‘war and revolution’ to ‘peace and development’. China also signalled that it would make fewer resources available for aiding other countries. Premier Zhao Ziyang made an eleven-country tour of Africa in 1982 and vice premier Li Peng visited in 1984, but there were otherwise few high-level trips to Africa until after the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989 when China felt a need to reassure its African partners. The Zhou Ziyang tour resembled Zhou Enlai’s famous 1963–64 visit and was an effort to reaffirm China’s interest in Africa. He indicated that China was ready to normalize relations with the Soviet Union and that China no longer expected African states to choose between China and the Soviet Union. China had set the stage for a different kind of economic cooperation with Africa (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 43–4; Taylor, 1998: 446–7).

Zhao Ziyang announced during his visit a revised foreign aid policy that he called the ‘four principles’ (Xuetong, 1988: 4):

  • Equality, mutual benefit, and non-interference in internal affairs.

  • Good economic results with less investment, shorter construction cycles, and quicker results.

  • Greater variety of projects that take into account specific local conditions, high quality of work, and a stress on friendship.

  • Enhancement of the self-reliant capabilities of both sides and promotion of growth of respective national economies.

These principles constitute a revision of the eight principles announced by Zhou Enlai during his visit to Africa in 1963–64. They emphasize actual results and were designed to counter some of the problems with China’s earlier aid projects such as the management failure of the Tanzania–Zambia railway. The emphasis on a variety of projects and mutual cooperation was also new (Yu Fai, 1984: 313).

(p.70) During the 1980s, China did not develop relations with African countries based on their ideology or who they sided with during the final decade of the Cold War. The number of African countries recognizing Beijing increased from forty-four in the 1970s to forty-eight in the 1980s; fifty-five African presidents visited China from 1981 to 1989. But China’s economic modernization left the country short of capital and unable to provide Africa with the same level of economic assistance as previously. China also began to emphasize development cooperation based on commercial contracts, joint ventures, and the provision of technical services. The focus of China’s relationship with Africa shifted from the political to the economic arena (He, 2006: 7–8).

Analysts have become increasingly reluctant to estimate the value of China’s aid to individual countries, particularly when it became more important to measure the aid against that coming from Western countries. There are problems with the definition of aid used by the OECD countries compared with China’s definition. Announcements of China’s aid projects often lack details and are not always implemented in the announced amount. They may also be spread over more years than initially stated. On the other hand, interest-free loans are sometimes cancelled, allowing the loan principal to become legitimate aid. The last estimated country breakdown published by the OECD went half-way through the Deng Xiaoping era to 1986. From 1979 to 1985, the OECD put China’s aid to Africa at about US$800 million. The major recipients, in descending order, were Sudan, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Madagascar, and Equatorial Guinea (OECD, 1987: 18–19).

Deng Xiaoping changed China’s arms transfer policy to one focused on earning hard currency from the sale of arms. As a result, transfers declined to African countries other than Egypt, which was an important buyer of a large selection of military equipment. During the first half of the 1980s, other major African recipients of arms deliveries were Sudan, Somalia, the DRC, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Most of the transfers involved low-tech Chinese copies of Soviet systems from the 1950s and 1960s. By the end of the 1980s, China supplied a wide assortment of military equipment to Africa that included fighter aircraft, artillery, patrol craft, and tanks (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 167).

The Deng Xiaoping era witnessed static trade levels with Africa, but continuation of a modest trade surplus by China. China’s global trade increased from US$37 billion in 1980 to US$117 billion in 1990 while, during the same period, Africa’s global trade fell from US$213 billion to US$197 billion. China–Africa trade also fell as a percentage of both sides’ world trade. By 1980, China’s trade with Africa accounted for only 2.6 per cent of its global trade and this dropped to about 1 per cent by 1988. Africa’s trade with China constituted less than 1 per cent of Africa’s total trade through the 1980s (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 112–13).

(p.71) 4.4 Jiang Zemin Reaches Out to Africa (1992–2002)

At the turn of the millennium and century, China and Africa are faced with both historical opportunities for greater development and unprecedented challenges.

(Jiang Zemin in his speech at the first Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in 2000)

The Jiang Zemin period established the base for the phenomenal expansion of China–Africa relations in the twenty-first century (Shinn and Eisenman 2012: 47, 112–15). Serving as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee from late 1989 until late 2002, Jiang Zemin had to deal immediately with the negative aftermath of Tiananmen Square but was presented with an opportunity following the end of the Cold War. While the West was highly critical of China’s handling of Tiananmen Square, the African reaction was muted and, in a few cases, supportive. The presidents of Namibia and Burkina Faso and the foreign minister of Angola all publicly backed China’s response (Taylor, 1998: 447–8). The prevailing reaction in North Africa suggested the crackdown was a necessary and understandable response by a legitimate government that felt threatened (Shichor, 1992: 89, 92, 96). China appreciated Africa’s silence or support and increased its assistance to the continent. At the same time, the end of the Cold War resulted in less interest in Africa by its traditional donors and allowed China to engage more actively.

There was a sharp increase in high-level visitors from China to Africa. In the three years after Tiananmen Square, foreign minister Qian Qichen visited fourteen African countries and started in 1991 a practice that continues to the present day—China’s foreign minister makes his first overseas visit each year to Africa before visiting any other part of the world (Taylor, 1998: 450). President Yang Shangkun visited Cote d’Ivoire in 1992 while Jiang Zemin made state visits in 1996 to Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. During this tour, he announced five points that were similar to previous statements on China’s Africa policy (He, 2006: 9):

  • To foster sincere friendship and become each other’s reliable ‘all-weather friend’.

  • To treat each other as equals, respect each other’s sovereignty, and refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.

  • To seek common development on the basis of mutual benefit.

  • To increase consultation and cooperation in international affairs.

  • To look into the future and create a more splendid world.

Prime Minister Li Peng visited seven African nations in 1997. Jiang Zemin proposed in 1999 creation of the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), (p.72) which signalled a new phase in Sino-African relations (Pham, 2006: 241). In 2000, he visited South Africa in April and in October opened the first FOCAC ministerial conference in Beijing. In the final year of his rule, he went to Libya, Nigeria, and Tunisia. Jiang Zemin made a clear break with the approach of Deng Xiaoping in an effort to expand China’s outreach to Africa; the aid and trade figures began to demonstrate this renewed interest in Africa.

China’s estimated aid to Africa in 1988 was only US$60 million; it jumped to US$224 million in 1989 and US$375 million in 1990. During the 1990s, more than half of the countries receiving China’s aid were African (Taylor, 1998: 450–1). At the end of the Jiang Zemin period in 2002, China’s aid to Africa reached about US$600 million, supplemented by about US$200 million in debt relief and US$500 million in concessional loans (Brautigam, 2009: 167). The number of African students studying in China, mostly on government scholarships, also began to rise and exceeded 1,000 at the beginning of the Jiang Zemin era. While the amounts of aid were small compared to larger Western donors, China was sending a message that it had become an increasingly important source of assistance to Africa.

China increased the conventional arms it transferred, mostly sales, to Africa in the 1990s but remained well behind the volume supplied by Russia. Chinese weapons deliveries from 1989 to 1999 totalled US$1.3 billion. Of this total, US$200 million went to North Africa, US$600 million to Central Africa, and US$500 million to Southern Africa. These transfers included ships, anti-ship missiles, tanks, supersonic combat aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, artillery pieces, armoured personnel carriers, and self-propelled guns. China was also a major supplier of small arms and ammunition, but reliable figures are not available. The principal attraction of Chinese weapons is the low price and relative simplicity of the equipment. In 1988, only nine African countries had defence attachés in Beijing; by 1998, the number had increased to thirteen (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 167–9).

In 1989, for the first time, China deployed personnel to a UN peacekeeping operation—20 military observers to the UN Transition Assistance Group monitoring elections in Namibia. China subsequently sent small numbers of peacekeepers to the UN mission in the Western Sahara beginning in 1991, Mozambique from 1993 to 1994, Liberia from 1993 to 1997, Sierra Leone from 1998 to 1999, and along the Eritrea–Ethiopia border in 2000. While China did not contribute troops to the two UN missions and the US-led operation in Somalia during the first half of the 1990s, it endorsed all three operations in the Security Council because of their ‘exceptional’ humanitarian goals (Wu and Taylor, 2011).

In 1993, China became for the first time a net importer of petroleum. During the 1990s, imports of energy and raw materials from Africa were increasingly important to sustaining China’s economy and its export of (p.73) consumer and industrial products. China also sought from Africa iron ore, titanium, cobalt, copper, uranium, bauxite, manganese, and timber. Sino-African trade grew impressively during the Jiang Zemin era, rising from just over US$1 billion in 1989 to more than US$10 billion in 2002. Chinese foreign direct investment in Africa also started to become significant, cumulatively reaching more than US$4 billion in 2002.

4.5 Hu Jintao Rides the Africa Wave (2002–12)

China has formed strategic partnerships and launched strategic dialogue mechanisms with many African countries.

(Hu Jintao in his speech before the fifth FOCAC in 2012)

Hu Jintao, general secretary of the CPC Central Committee from November 2002 until November 2012, inherited a strong relationship with all African countries except for eight that still recognized Taiwan. When Hu Jintao relinquished power in 2012, only four African countries—Eswatini, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and São Tomé and Príncipe—recognized Taiwan. This represented a significant victory for Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy. During his time as general secretary, Hu Jintao made four trips to Africa to underscore the importance China attached to the continent.

The second FOCAC ministerial meeting took place in Addis Ababa in 2003 attended by Premier Wen Jiabao, thirteen African leaders, and more than seventy ministers from Africa and China. In a side session, nearly one hundred Chinese business representatives assembled to meet with their African counterparts. Hu Jintao introduced in the same year the ‘peaceful rise’ concept, which argued that China’s economic rise would not seek external expansion but would uphold peace, mutual cooperation, and common development. In response to concerns by some critics who interpreted ‘rise’ as threatening, Hu Jintao stopped using it and substituted ‘peaceful development’ (Glaser and Medeiros, 2007).

In 2005, Hu Jintao introduced the concept of ‘harmonious society’ and ‘harmonious world’ at the Asia–Africa Summit. ‘Harmonious world’ suggested that China is moving to a new stage of development and is more willing to engage in international activities such as UN peacekeeping operations. It assumes that China’s economic well-being is its highest priority and this will only be possible in a benign international environment. This concept had important implications for Africa where China supported the status quo and where it depended increasingly on African raw materials to fuel its economy (Zheng and Tok, 2007).

The head of state or government of nearly every African country that recognized Beijing attended the third FOCAC conference in Beijing in 2006. (p.74) In advance of the event, China issued its first Africa policy white paper, which contained the following principles (China, 2006):

  • China adheres to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, respects African countries’ independent choice of the road to development, and supports African countries’ efforts to grow stronger through unity.

  • China supports African countries’ economic development and nation building and promotes common prosperity in China and Africa.

  • China will strengthen cooperation with Africa in the UN and other multilateral systems by supporting each other’s just demands and reasonable propositions.

  • China and Africa will learn from and draw upon each other’s experience in governance and development, strengthen exchange and cooperation in education, science, culture, and health.

These principles are a continuation of China’s long-standing policy of non-interference in internal affairs and incorporate the idea that China will not criticize internal African policies and developments. Equally important, African leaders are expected to avoid criticism of China’s internal policies such as human rights, Tibet, and its Muslim minority. During the past several decades, not a single head of state of an African country that recognizes Beijing has violated this tacit understanding.

In 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao announced at the fourth FOCAC in Egypt a series of measures for strengthening ties with Africa. While most were previous themes, several suggested a new emphasis in Chinese policy. He called for partnership with Africa on climate change and agreed to increase cooperation in science and technology, including the creation of 100 joint demonstration projects. He announced a loan of US$1 billion for small and medium-sized African businesses and said China would offer zero-tariff treatment to 95 per cent of the products from Africa’s least-developed countries with which it had diplomatic relations (He, 2010).

As the Hu Jintao era ended, Beijing hosted in July 2012 the fifth FOCAC conference in Beijing. It resulted in the most comprehensive action plan so far and emphasized a new type of China–Africa strategic partnership. There was a greater focus on supporting African peace and security as Chinese nationals and interests in Africa came under increasing pressure and even occasional attacks. After the fall of Libya’s leader in 2011, the evacuation of almost 36,000 Chinese nationals from the country was a wake-up call. China launched the Initiative on China–Africa Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Security. It promised to support African efforts to combat the illegal trade and transfer of small arms and light weapons. It reaffirmed China’s participation in the anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, assistance for the African Union to (p.75) resolve African conflicts, and support for UN peacekeeping operations in Africa (FOCAC, 2012; Xu, Yu, and Wang, 2015).

China’s official development aid to Africa grew modestly during Hu Jintao’s rule. One of the best estimates for 2007 puts the amount of aid and debt relief at US$1.4 billion (Brautigam 2009: 168–72). According to the State Council, China provided US$14.4 billion in foreign assistance (grants, interest-free loans, and concessional loans) during the three-year period 2010–2012 to 121 countries, including fifty-one in Africa. About 52 per cent of this aid went to Africa. If you divide the global figure of US$14.4 billion by three years times 52 per cent, Africa received just under US$2.5 billion for each of the three years (China, 2014). This compares with about US$8 billion annually from the United States during the same period.

China continued to be a significant supplier of conventional weapons to Africa. From 2004 to 2011, China delivered US$1.9 billion worth of weapons to North Africa and US$1.8 billion to sub-Saharan Africa, which accounted for 9 per cent and 19 per cent respectively of all weapons delivered to each region. China was the single largest supplier to sub-Saharan Africa but a modest source for North Africa. Most of the weapons were artillery pieces, armoured personnel carriers, minor surface combatants, combat aircraft and other aircraft, and tanks and self-propelled guns (Grimmett and Kerr, 2012: 52–4, 58–9, 68).

China stepped up its training both in China and in Africa for African military personnel. It increased the number of personnel assigned to six UN peacekeeping operations in Africa, reaching 1,520 at the end of the Hu Jintao era. Support for UN peacekeeping operations became a core interest of China, which provided more personnel in Africa than any other permanent member of the UN Security Council. On the other hand, China contributed only about 3 per cent of the UN peacekeeping budget and its contributions to African Union peacekeeping activities were exceedingly small. Beginning in late 2008 in response to Somali pirate attacks on ships and crews, including those from China, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) began sending a three-ship anti-piracy task force to the Gulf of Aden, a policy that continues to the present day (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 179–93).

There was rapid growth from a low base in China’s foreign direct investment in Africa during the Hu Jintao years. Even allowing for under-reporting of investment not captured by money entering through tax havens, the amount was modest and below Africa’s major Western partners. At the beginning of the Hu Jintao period, FDI was well under US$1 billion annually, reached a high of about US$5 billion in 2008, and fell back to about US$2.5 billion in 2012. On the other hand, there was a sharp increase in contracts won by Chinese companies primarily for infrastructure projects. These contracts totalled about US$3 billion in 2003 and exceeded more than US$40 billion by 2012. International financial institutions, African governments, and (p.76) China’s Export-Import Bank provided the financing. While China has built much of Africa’s infrastructure, there is rarely any investment component; these are contracts won by Chinese companies whose goal is to make a profit (Pairault, 2018).

One of the most impressive developments under Hu Jintao was the growth in China–Africa trade. It increased from about US$10 billion in 2002 to US$180 billion in 2012 and was largely in balance throughout this period. In 2009, China overtook the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner. However, most of Africa’s exports to China were natural resources, especially oil and minerals, while China’s exports to Africa were manufactured and finished goods. The continent-wide trade balance also masked trade deficits that poorer African countries had with China (IMF, 2017: 162–3; Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 114–21).

The Hu Jintao era witnessed a major increase in China’s efforts to increase its soft power in Africa. From 2010 to 2012, China granted almost 19,000 scholarships to students from African countries. By the end of 2012, China had sent more than four hundred young volunteers to sixteen African countries in a programme that resembled the American Peace Corps. Twenty pairs of leading Chinese and African universities began cooperating in a new ‘20 plus 20’ programme. From 2010 to 2012, China sponsored training courses, mostly short-term, for more than 27,000 African officials and technicians in a wide range of fields. By the end of 2012, China had engaged with African countries on 115 joint research and technology projects, and opened thirty-one Confucius Institutes and five Confucius classrooms in twenty-six African countries (China, 2013). China also expanded the activities of Xinhua, China Radio International, and China Central Television (now China Global Television Network) in an effort to improve its image in Africa (Shinn and Eisenman, 2012: 194–210).

4.6 Xi Jinping Becomes More Assertive in Africa (2012–Present)

China–Africa relations have today reached a stage of growth unmatched in history. We should scale the heights, look afar and take bold steps.

(Xi Jinping at the 2015 FOCAC conference in Johannesburg, South Africa)

Xi Jinping took up his position as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee in November 2012. So far, his global policies, including those in Africa, have been marked by a new assertiveness. Following a stop in Russia, Xi Jinping early in 2013 made his first visit outside China to Tanzania, South Africa, and Republic of the Congo. In 2015, he visited Zimbabwe and opened (p.77) the 6th FOCAC conference in South Africa where he announced an historic US$60 billion financing package, although some of that programme had not materialized by the end of 2018. Greater attention to risk assessment in Africa, rising concerns about African debt, and a slowing Chinese economy account for the delays in obligating the funds (Eom, Brautigam, and Benabdallah, 2018; Yun, 2018). Xi Jinping returned to South Africa in 2018 for the BRICS summit and included visits to Senegal and Rwanda. The CPC has also continued to encourage party-to-party exchanges with larger numbers of African party leaders coming to China. In Africa, only Eswatini still recognized Taiwan.

In connection with the 6th FOCAC, China released its second Africa policy paper. It emphasized the following themes (China, 2015):

  • Enhancing political mutual trust.

  • Deepening cooperation in international affairs.

  • Deepening economic and trade cooperation.

  • Strengthening development cooperation between China and Africa.

  • Deepening and expanding cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

  • Promoting peace and security in Africa.

  • Strengthening exchanges and cooperation in consular, immigration, judicial, and police areas.

Xi Jinping initiated the concept of the Chinese dream. In the case of Africa, he says it connects the development of Africa with that of China and aligns the interests of the Chinese people with those of the African people. Related to this concept is Xi Jinping’s ‘community of shared future’ for reforming and improving the existing international order in a manner more suited to China’s interests. The key initiative for achieving this new order is Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although China has made Africa part of the BRI, it is not clear what this means practically for Africa. China includes in the BRI its infrastructure projects that were conceived and even under construction before the BRI was announced. As China agrees to new projects, they routinely become part of the BRI. The question is what is different. Whatever the significance, this approach is now known as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ and intended to propagate his global vision for changing the international order (Rudd, 2018).

During the Xi Jinping era, China’s economic interaction with Africa has levelled off and even declined in some cases. This is due largely to a drop in the price of many commodities exported by Africa, a slowdown in China’s economy, and China’s concerns about Africa’s increasing debt burden. According to the International Monetary Fund, five African countries are in debt distress and another eleven are at high risk of debt distress (IMF, 2018).

(p.78) China’s global foreign aid as calculated by the Ministry of Finance increased modestly in 2013 over 2012 and again in 2014, levelled off in 2015 at about US$3 billion, and then declined in 2016 to about US$2.3 billion (China–Africa Research Initiative, 2017). In past years, just over half of China’s aid has gone to Africa. Different sourcing of the data accounts for lower Finance Ministry aid figures than those reported by the State Council in 2010–12. In any event, China’s aid peaked in 2014–15. At the institutional level, China created in 2018 its first independent international aid agency.

During the period 2012–15, China provided US$900 million in conventional arms to North Africa and US$1.9 billion to sub-Saharan Africa. This amounted to 12 per cent of all arms deliveries to Africa—only 5 per cent to North Africa but a whopping 32 per cent to sub-Saharan Africa (Theohary, 2016: 42–7). China continued to emphasize the security theme in Africa, most notably opening in Djibouti in 2017 its first military base outside China and increasing significantly the number of PLAN ship visits to African port cities. The number of Chinese peacekeepers assigned to UN operations in Africa actually declined slightly due to the end of the mission in Liberia. On the other hand, China sent its first combat battalion ever to a UN mission (UNMISS in South Sudan) and increased its financial contribution to UN peacekeeping operations to 10 per cent of the total budget. By 2018, the number of African countries with defence attaché offices in China rose to thirty-five and China’s Ministry of National Defence hosted its first ever Defence and Security Forum for high-ranking military officials from fifty African states.

China’s annual flows of foreign direct investment to Africa since 2012 have been largely flat and actually declined to US$2.4 billion in 2016, a decrease of 19 per cent compared to 2015. China accounts for only about 3 per cent of all foreign direct investment in Africa. Contracts completed by Chinese companies have continued to rise since 2012, although they peaked in 2015 at about US$55 billion and fell back in 2016 to about US$53 billion (Pairault, 2018).

China–Africa trade reached a high in 2014 at US$203 billion, fell to US$146 billion in 2015 and then began to recover but reached only US$170 billion by 2017. Throughout this period, China maintained a significant trade surplus (IMF, 2017). It may take several more years before trade returns to the 2014 level. The more important issue is China’s large trade surplus, particularly in African countries that have had large deficits throughout this century.

Xi Jinping underscored the need for China to improve its people-to-people outreach in Africa. This resulted in even more scholarships for African students. By 2015, there were almost fifty thousand African students studying in China, more than in either the United States or the United Kingdom but fewer than France. By 2018, there were forty-eight Confucius Institutes and twenty-three Confucius classrooms in thirty-five African countries. (p.79) China increased its interaction with African universities, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations. It instructed its embassy personnel to spend more time with ordinary Africans. It also put additional resources into its media activities in Africa. On the downside, it abandoned its young volunteer programme in Africa that was started under Hu Jintao.

4.7 Conclusion

China–Africa interaction has experienced different phases, which correspond roughly to China’s changes of leadership (See Appendix: Table A4.1). Support for wars of national liberation and competition with both the West and the Soviet Union, exacerbated by the Cultural Revolution, characterized the first twenty years of the Mao Zedong period. A more pragmatic approach towards Africa began to take hold in the early 1970s. Deng Xiaoping focused on internal domestic reform and pulled back somewhat from engagement in Africa while seeking to maintain cordial relations with as many African countries as possible.

Appendix: Table A4.1. Evolution and characteristics of China–Africa relations




Pre-nineteenth century until 1949

In the first quarter of the fifteenth century Chinese labourers and traders came to several regions of Africa. After taking power in 1912, Sun Yat Sen and the Republic of China developed official relations, notably with South Africa.

Chinese labour migration to South Africa and Madagascar.

Mao Zedong


The seizure of power by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1949 did not result immediately in any significant outreach to Africa. Mao Zedong was preoccupied with consolidating his rule in the early years of the new regime. With the decolonization of African countries, China began to pursue a more pragmatic policy in Africa and achieved a huge political victory in October 1971—admission to the United Nations.

After the Bandung conference of 1955, the PRC’s Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence were established and remain essential to China’s foreign policy until today. They include: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

Deng Xiaoping (1978–92)

The number of African countries recognizing Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy’ increased from forty-four in the 1970s to forty-eight in the 1980s; fifty-five African presidents visited China from 1981 to 1989.

But China’s economic modernization left the country short of capital and unable to provide Africa with the same level of economic assistance.

Jiang Zemin


This period witnessed an intensification of China–Africa diplomatic relations and unprecedented high-level Chinese official visits to several African countries. For example, Jiang Zemin made state visits in 1996 to Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Mali, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. For the first time, China deployed personnel to a UN peacekeeping operation in 1989.

The main features of China’s involvement with Africa are reflected in five areas: development aid;

considerable increase in arms export;

increased trade; loans for infrastructure; UN peacekeeping.

Hu Jintao (2002–12)

When Hu Jintao relinquished power in 2012, only four African countries—Eswatini, Burkina Faso, Gambia, and São Tomé and Príncipe—recognized Taiwan. This represented a significant victory for Beijing’s ‘One China’ policy.


The second FOCAC ministerial meeting took place in Addis Ababa in 2003 attended by Premier Wen Jiabao, thirteen African leaders, and more than seventy ministers from Africa and China. In a side session, nearly a hundred Chinese business representatives assembled to meet with their African counterparts.

Xi Jinping



Xi Jinping oversaw the 6th FOCAC, China released its second Africa policy paper. It emphasized the following themes (China, 2015):

• Enhancing political mutual trust.

• Deepening cooperation in international affairs.

• Deepening economic and trade cooperation.

• Deepening and expanding cultural and people-to-people exchanges.

• Promoting peace and security in Africa.

The key initiative for achieving this new order is Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China agrees to new projects; they routinely become part of BRI.

During the 6th FOCAC, China announced a US$60 billion loan, trade, and aid package to African countries. The package also included debt relief to the least developed African countries. China also announced more scholarships for African students to study in China. By 2015, there were almost fifty thousand African students studying in China.


Source: The author acknowledges inputs from Mohamed Salih and Fantu Cheru in preparing this matrix.

Jiang Zemin, concerned by possible negative fallout from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crisis, early in his rule increased China’s outreach to Africa. Near the end of his reign, he created the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation, which permitted a further expansion of relations with the continent. Hu Jintao took advantage of Jiang Zemin’s preparatory efforts and a relative decline in Western interest in Africa by increasing significantly China’s economic engagement in Africa.

Xi Jinping has extended China’s engagement into the security sector and generally taken a more assertive approach globally, which has had important implications for Africa. Chinese and African economic developments have resulted, however, in a recent consolidation, reassessment, and even decrease of China’s economic engagement on the continent. A softening in African commodity prices and a modest reduction in China’s importation of certain African commodities account for most of this decrease. Worrisome debt in a number of African countries and China’s greater focus on minimizing risk contribute to the trend. Although China–Africa trade may have bottomed out since its high point in 2014, it will likely take several more years for China–Africa economic relations to return to their previous high levels.

Looking forward, China will continue to initiate most of the important interaction with African countries primarily because of the inherent asymmetry in the China–Africa relationship and the difficulty of fifty-four countries reaching agreement on most issues. At the same time, China has tried to respond to African concerns about some of its engagement. It has been willing to scale back the percentage of Chinese labour contracted for implementation of infrastructure projects. It has listened to African complaints about the (p.80) (p.81) environmental practices of some Chinese companies and published stricter voluntary guidelines. It understands Chinese companies occasionally do not follow local laws and regulations and, in some cases, has not stood in the way of their sanctioning by African governments. China has also responded positively to African requests to support with more vigour industrialization in Africa.


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