Why Did China Seek Friends in Africa in the 1950s

In the 1950s, fascination, confusion, and even alarm are adjec-tives that best described the reaction of many political observers to the Chinese seeking friends and allies in Africa. An executive editor of the New York Times, Mr. Seymour Freidin, wrote:

Red Chinese drive into Africa involves a long range effort to dominate the continent totally and populate it with Chinese.

Mr. Seymour’s sentiments were not uncommon at the time. There was a great deal of confusion as to what the Chinese were actually up to. This was due in large part to the inconsistent nature of policies pursued by the Chinese in those early years. This was exemplified in the so-called split-level or dual diplomacy. Simply put, this was the pursuit of the “United Front From Above” (government-to-government relations), and the “United Front From Below” (support for wars of national liberation). In practice, this meant the Chinese would support “revolutionary” opposition groups while at the same time supporting the legitimate government of an African country. I take this up in Chapter 3.

To the question of this chapter, why Africa? The simple answer is ideology, manifested in both domestic Chinese politics and in her international relations. In particular, China’s emerging conflict with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States of America (USA) were to play a role in the Chinese drive into Africa. I will deal with the ideological factors in the next section.

First, I would like to briefly point to historical reasons which some Chinese leaders used as a primary argument for their interest in Africa. For example, they pointed to the fact that in October 1415, Chinese explorer and Admiral Zheng He reached the eastern coast of Africa and sent the first of two giraffes as gifts to the Chinese Yongle Emperor. Zheng brought gifts and granted titles from the Ming emperor to the local rulers, with the aim of establishing a large number of tributary states. Indeed, it is worth noting that China and Africa have a history of trade relations, sometimes through third parties, dating back as far as 202 BC and AD 220.

I will now deal with the domestic factors and the ideological disputes with the United States and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).


At the Eighth Congress of the Chinese Communist party in 1956, it was clear the new China had been making a determined effort to expand her influence in the outside world, particularly in the “vast intermediate areas” of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In Chinese eyes, the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America remain the potential field for revolutions of the Chinese type. This was one area in which they felt a special ideological leadership to offer. Ten years later, in 1965, this belief was exemplified by Lin Biao’s celebrated thesis entitled “Long Live the victory of the People’s war”. His core argument was that;

Comrade Mao’s theory of the estab-lishment of rural revolutionary base areas and the encirclement of the cities from the countryside is of outstanding and universal importance for the present revolutionary struggles of all the oppressed nations and peoples, particularly, those in Africa.

Furthermore, The CCP claimed that it was waging a class struggle in defense of Maoism, the true revolutionary, against allies of Nikita Khrushchev in the CCP-the so-called allied forces of “reaction”- and imperialism and revisionism in the world at large. The party described its actions as a ‘sharp class struggle’ and the ‘socialist education’ against “renascent bourgeois ideology, bureaucratic degeneration, and anti-party elements” in the Chinese Communist party (CCP).

If Mao was to gain complete control over his enemies and prove his ideological position correct, China had to find allies abroad to form the broadest possible United Front for a “struggle” against the “corrupting revisionist influence” of Russia and the imperialist drive of the United States of America. As Mao, not Khrushchev was the true revolutionary; the drive into Africa was an attempt to assert China’s ideological supremacy over USSR.

It is fascinating and quite remarkable in my view to see that China’s leaders in the late 1950s and 1960s did seriously consider Africa would be of key importance in realpolitik. They were consumed by the belief that Africa was both the center of the anti-colonial struggle and the center for the East and West to fight for control of the “intermediate zone”.

The theory of the “intermediate Zone” is an interesting one as it formed the foundation for this belief. Introduced by Mao in the late 1940s, the theory claimed that between the United States and the Soviet Union exist a vast “intermediate zone” mainly composed of “oppressed” non-Western countries, including China.

Before the “imperialist” United States of America could attack the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, they first had to control the intermediate zone, according to Mao. This then made Asia and Africa the central arena of the Cold War. When Mao and the Chinese Communist Party seized political power in China, they immediately proclaimed revolutionary China as a natural ally of the “oppressed peoples” in the “intermediate zone”. They saw themselves as champions that held the banner of anti-imperialism and anti colonialism, challenging the United States of America and other Western imperialist/colonial powers.

The belief, that they [The Chinese] were the flag bearers of the oppressed, was fostered by the fact that they made comparisons to key stages in Chinese revolutionary history to the situation in most of Africa during the years of decolonization. The implication was that the ‘unfolding African revolution’ would pass through similar stages. It was noted by Chinese leaders that some parts of Africa were going through similar experiences that China went through sixty years earlier during the Boxer uprising.

Some events for the independence struggle in Africa were likened to those which occurred in the Hsin-Hai Revolution of 1911, while others resemble what happened around the May 4th incident of 1919.

All this led some Chinese leaders to have a vision of a “third force”-drawn of nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America against the “double hegemony” of the nuclear giants-The United States of America and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As we would later see, it was no surprise that the Chinese felt compelled to support various rebel and “freedom fighters” across Africa.

This support was based on a genuine desire to “free” the Afri-cans from what the Chinese saw as imperialism and hegemony. To this day, the Chinese still hold this desire, hence their lack of interference in African affairs.


It was a fact that Communist China, after its birth in 1949, faced a hostile external environment. Between the years 1952 and 1961, it was notably her unresolved territorial conflict with the United States of America over Taiwan (Republic of China-ROC), denial of the Chinese seat at the United Nations, and China’s concern with American alliances and bases in Asia.

The United States Government had embarked on a policy of isolating the Communist throughout the world at that time. The Truman administration in July 1950 had extended full diplomatic recognition and protection to Taiwan and proceeded to organize military alliances with other Asian powers surrounding China. Economic and commercial embargo had already been placed on activities with China.

The United States had further masterminded Operation Van-guard designed to make Taiwan attractive to African countries some of whom were gaining their independence. Operation Vanguard, launched in 1960, saw Taiwan begin to dispatch agricultural missions to assist emerging independent states in Africa with modernizing their agricultural production and to garner support for the Taiwan’s (ROC) representation in the United Nations. At one time, the number of Taiwan’s agricultural specialists in Africa exceeded 1,200. The ROC-Africa Technical Cooperation Committee was established in 1962 to further expand the program.

Taiwan, with the support of the United States had the Chinese seat in the United Nations and enjoyed support among the allies of the United States, including many African countries. China was quick to see that with the support of these African countries in the United Nations, the balance could possibly sway in her favor.

China’s ideological battle with the USSR was also to lead her to seek friends in Africa. I already discussed the CCP’s drive to establish their communist credentials in the “intermediate areas”. As the Sino-Soviet split became more pronounced, so did their divergent views on Africa.

The Chinese saw Africa as an opportunity to get on the International stage and break out of the United States of America isolation. The Soviets on the other hand, saw Africa as a means to expand their industrial strength and spread Soviet propaganda. These two distinct views were to manifest themselves after the Bandung Conference in 1955.

Thus, tensions with the United States and ideological conflict with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were key factors in China’s drive into Africa. China’s policies and actions were to be heavily influenced by these factors as we will later see in this work.

The next chapter looks at where and how Sino-African relations started.

The following is the First Chapter of my book: China and Africa Love Affair

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