International Herald Tribune
China and Africa, then and now
Thursday, November 2, 2006

It was early 1964 and I was doing postgraduate work at the University of Khartoum in Sudan. John F. Kennedy, symbol for many in Africa of all that was best about America, had been recently assassinated. Sudan was ruled by a rather mild and secular military man, General Ibrahim Abboud, who was soon overthrown after failing to resist student- led demands for the restoration of democracy - which turned out to be brief.

Rebellion in the South was just getting underway, providing my entry into journalism, but distant (two dusty days by train) Darfur was quiet.

And Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai, we wrote in those days) was in town. I drove my Vespa to the airport and somehow managed to join the procession which followed Zhou and Abboud as they rode in an old red Rolls Royce to the presidential palace on the banks of the Nile.

Sudan was just one stop in a grand tour that Zhou made of 10 African nations, offering friendship and aid to all, help in liberating areas still under colonial rule and the friendship of the world's largest non- aligned country.

The Zhou visit was then Communist China's biggest diplomatic foray into Africa, and it drew gasps of concern from Western media and diplomats that Africa might be "lost" to the Red Tide from the East.

Later in the year I observed some results from Zhou's handiwork. In Dar es Salaam, capital of the then-just-joined-together United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar (now Tanzania), there was a great exhibition of Chinese products in a shiny red and green pavilion replete with dragons.

In the little coastal town of Tanga, I came face to face with another aspect of the new China. Sitting in a restaurant, I, and everyone else, watched in amazement as 30 Chinese workers in Mao suits filed in, sat down in unison, ate quickly in silence then filed out again in military order. Was not this the very antithesis of life in Africa?

China went on to fulfill at least some of its promises even though it was soon to be embroiled at home in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.

In particular, it built the Tanzam railway, freeing landlocked Zambia from dependence on rail transit for its copper exports through then white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Angola.

But it also left behind some suspicions. Zhou himself had undiplomatically declared that Africa was "ripe for revolution," which did not go down too well with leaders who thought they had just had their anticolonial revolutions.

African students who were encouraged to study in Beijing encountered isolation and racism worse than in the West. Aid projects such as the railway used large numbers of Chinese and were accused of doing little to transfer expertise. And China had to compete for attention not just with rich Western countries but also a diplomatically active Soviet Union peddling similar anticolonial claims.

Things are different today. China is more powerful and its trade vastly more important to Africa. But this week's gathering of African nations in Beijing can perhaps be seen as a group return visit for Zhou's 1964 tour. If China is much more important now, Africa is that much more complicated than it was when the Cold War and anticolonialism were the themes of the day.

But some common themes remain. China is opportunity for trade, a lessening of dependence on the West. China is welcome because it will always oppose foreign interventions and separatist movements (as in Darfur), because it has always done so as a matter of principle and self-interest. It sees no more reason to stop investing in oil production in the Sudan than the West does to pull out of an oppressive Saudi Arabia.

But China's commercial agendas may be as worrying in some places in Africa as its revolutionary one was in Zhou's day. Racial issues continue to cast doubts on the sincerity of China's friendship. Nascent African industries see China as threat, not opportunity.

Other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, barely known in Africa in 1964, are important today as well. And the United States may well someday regain the beacon status that it had when JFK was alive.

Personally, looking back on 1964, I find it difficult to get very excited one way or the other about China's current drive for African friendship. Plus ça change....