Why Did China Seek Friends in Africa in the 1950s

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   Africa   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.


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