Chapter 3 - China's relationship with Africa: A special partnership?

China’s relationship with Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular, is more complicated than it might seem.

Claude Kabemba's picture

Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW)

October 5th, 2012

China’s relationship with Africa in general and Southern Africa in particular, is more complicated than it might seem.

For some, it is purely an economic relationship spurred by China’s need for raw materials and, perhaps, future markets: in exchange it may offer development help but only in order to smooth the way to getting what it needs. China itself and the governments with which it deals tend to portray it as a development partnership, an expression of South-South solidarity. And, while major powers who are active in Africa always seek to portray their involvement as a development partnership rather than an exercise in extraction, the history of China’s role in Africa as well its current status in the world mean that this has more plausibility than it does when the claim is made by Western powers.

Unlike the European powers, China never colonised Africa and so it approached the continent not as a former master. On the contrary, China’s previous forays into Africa – most famous among them the Tazara railways project of the 1970s – were designed as exercises in anti-colonial solidarity. At that time, China was seen not as a colonial power but as a country of the global South, allied with other countries in a fight against imperialism. The development projects were portrayed as expressions of that reality. Today, despite its phenomenal economic growth, China’s alliances are with Southern countries, most notably, the BRICS partnership with Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa, rather than with the major economic powers gathered in the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). So, unlike the United States which also never colonised the continent, China has previously presented itself as an ally in the fight against economic domination rather than as a former dominator seeking to become a partner. This means that partnership with China can be seen as a continuation of South-South solidarity rather than an attempt to bolster Chinese economic power.

Even if we reject this sympathetic portrayal of China’s presence, it is possible to see it as a political rather than a purely economic phenomenon. It could be seen as an attempt to enhance China’s political influence in much the same way as other major powers use their relationship with countries in the South to enhance theirs. Or it could be seen as an attempt to build a bloc of opposition to Western power. This would give governing elites in African countries the option of ignoring Western influence. Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s values and vision have faced no competition from another major power, reducing the bargaining power of African governments who have often had no option but to comply with the West’s requirements. Partnership with China would offer governments an option not previously available. But this could also work against the interests of citizens because it could ensure Chinese support to governments which violate their citizens’rights and ignore calls for democracy. As our Zimbabwean study points out, it is possible to see China as a development partner, an economic competitor, or a coloniser. All of these descriptions can be backed with credible evidence.

This has important implications for our analysis. If, in the minds of the Chinese authorities and the African governments with which they interact, the relationship is an exercise in South-South solidarity, then attempts to ensure that the relationship is fairer and more suited to Africa’s needs should enjoy a sympathetic hearing, since both the reformers and the governments with whom they interact would share a wish to promote the interests of African countries. If, however, the talk of partnership and the recollection of previous solidarities are purely a disguise for what has become a purely commercial arrangement, the road to change would lie not in moral appeals to Chinese solidarity but in the adoption of a more tactically coherent and principled strategy towards Chinese investment by African countries. If China’s political influence in Africa is growing, strategies for change may need to identify ways in which this can strengthen or impede pressures for reform.

This chapter will thus discuss the way in which the governments and other stakeholders portray the relationship; it will assess whether those portrayals are accurate, and will attempt to analyse the nature of the relationship. It will also point out the implications for strategy.

Partners in the Past: Historical Solidarities

In several of the countries studied, China’s role as a partner dates back to struggles against colonialism and this reinforces the notion of the relationship as a continuation of past partnership. But the relationship has rarely been an easy one and, despite romantic memories of the Tazara railway, stadiums and parliament building, it has been marked by tension as well as solidarity.

China’s involvement in Angola typifies this complexity. It dates back to the early years of the anti-colonial struggle, through its support for the three major liberation movements in the country: the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA), União Nacional para a Indêpendencia Total de Angola (UNITA), and the Frente Nacional para Libertação de Angola (FNLA). At that time, the Cultural Revolution was raging in China, and relations were defined by the Cold War. In 1960, the MPLA, which enjoyed the support of the former Soviet Union, received Chinese political and military assistance. However, following the Organisation of Africa Unity’s recognition of FNLA and UNITA as legitimate liberation movements, Chinese support to the MPLA ceased and it took a special interest in the two rival movements. In 1963, Holden Roberto of the FNLA met with Foreign Minister Chen Yi in Nairobi, and China is reported to have agreed to provide most of the FNLA armaments. Likewise, in 1964, Jonas Savimbi of UNITA met Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai in China, where he received military training and became a disciple of Maoism. With the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1970, China provided military training to MPLA commanders and guerrillas. Internal splits within the MPLA, and also China’s desire to balance the USSR’s strong support for the MPLA, made this aid short-lived. China’s support once again shifted to the two main rival liberation movements. Although UNITA received some sporadic aid, China’s attention was mainly targeted at the FNLA.

Relations between China and the MPLA, which has governed Angola since independence, have, therefore, been anything but smooth. When Angola gained its independence, China initially refused to recognise it and formal diplomatic relations between Beijing and Luanda were only established in 1983. The first trade agreement was signed in 1984, and a Joint Economic and Trade Commission created in 1988 (although its first meeting was only held in December 1999, with a second meeting in May 2001). Relations between Angola and China improved gradually in the 1990s, and Angola became China’s second-largest trading partner in Africa (after South Africa) by the end of the decade, mostly because of defence co-operation. In October 1997, Yang Wesheng, Chinese deputy minister of economy, trade, and cooperation, announced while visiting Angola that trade had been increasing significantly over the previous six months.

A similar ambiguity in relations with the governing liberation movement is evident in South Africa. Since the start of the struggle against apartheid, China has been a supporter, regarding this as an integral part of the drive for national independence and political liberation of the African continent. ANC president Oliver Tambo visited Beijing in 1963, while SACP (South African Communist Party) members maintained close links with the Communist Party of China (CPC). While official accounts insist that Beijing’s full support for the liberation of South Africa was never questioned, the Sino-Soviet dispute hampered China’s interaction with the ANC and the SACP, leading to increased Chinese support for the ANC’s rival, the Pan Africanist Congress. During the early 1990s, Taiwan actively supported the ANC in the hope of winning diplomatic recognition or at least a decision by the ANC government to deal with both Chinese governments. It was presumably emboldened by the previous tensions between China and the ANC.

Ultimately, a combination of strategic calculation and political ties persuaded South Africa to cement its relationship with China. While assessments that Chinese economic power was too great to ignore played an important role, the CPC’s interaction with the SACP through a party-to-party framework, provided a solid foundation for positive relations between Pretoria and Beijing. CPC interaction with the ANC and the SACP provides a foundation for increased collaboration between China and South Africa. In November 1996, the South African government decided to withdraw recognition of Taiwan (which had, unsurprisingly, been recognised by the apartheid government), in favour of China. Formal diplomatic relations between China and South Africa were established on 1 January 1998, opening a new chapter in Sino-African relations and bringing South Africa in line with African diplomacy.

During Nelson Mandela’s visit to China in May 1999 (the first by a South African head of state), Mandela thanked China for its consistent support of South Africa, particularly in the struggle against apartheid (thus signalling the end of the struggle-era tensions). Moreover, Mandela indicated his determination to promote the development of a mutually beneficial Sino-South African diplomatic partnership. In November 1998, the general secretary of the SACP, Blade Nzimande, visited China and was received by President Jiang. During the meeting, Jiang described Nzimande as an ‘old friend of the Chinese people’, and he thanked the SACP for its contribution to the establishment of diplomatic ties with South Africa. It was decided to set up a regular mutual consultation mechanism, which was the first of its kind established between the CPC and a foreign political party. At the same time, Jiang pointed out that formal diplomatic links between China and South Africa enhanced prospects for Sino-South African co-operation at all levels. Ironically, since the SACP was initially among the Soviet Union’s strongest allies in the world communist movement (including, of course, during the period of the Sino-Soviet split) it now regards China’s Communist Party as a firm ally and this is seen as a major contributor to relations between the two countries.

China-Zimbabwe relations might have been expected to be particularly strong given that China had supported the ruling ZANU (PF) party during the fight against colonial rule. But, by the time Zimbabwe achieved independence, China’s role in Africa had declined. In the first decade of Zimbabwean independence, the 1980s, Zimbabwean economic policy, despite much socialist rhetoric, was conservative and market-oriented, dictated by a concern for Western investment. There was more continuity than transformation. Relations with China remained at the political level, with the national sports stadium being the only investment of note.

The ties between China and Mozambique go back to the 1960s, when China assisted Frelimo (the country’s main liberation movement at that time, and the ruling party since independence), providing military training and equipment. In 1963, the first group of Mozambicans went to China to receive military training. Upon independence, China was one of the first countries to recognise Mozambique and establish diplomatic ties on 25 June 1975. During Mozambique’s civil war, which left the country and the economy in disarray, diplomatic ties were severed, although China did yet again provide military training to the government, a support that was recognised by Mozambique’s first President, Samora Machel, in 1978. Other projects during this period included a textile mill, a shoe and clothing factory, well drilling and water supply projects. Formal links were re-established in the 1980s as Mozambique adhered to economic stabilisation policies imposed by the IMF and the World Bank, and China opened its doors to the world after Deng Xiao Ping took office in 1978, leading China towards a market economy. In 1992, after sixteen years of civil war, Mozambique signed a peace agreement with the rebel movement Renamo. That same year, Qian Qichen, the then Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, visited the country to further bilateral ties. 

In the case of the DRC, China has maintained a good political relationship with successive governments, including the governments of Patrice Lumumba, Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent Kabila, and now Joseph Kabila Kabange.

China officially recognised the Congolese government shortly after it declared independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960. In February 1961, China and the DRC established diplomatic relations. In 1961 China called back its ambassador after the DRC established diplomatic relations with Taiwan. In 1972, China and Zaire normalised relations. President Mobutu Sese Seko visited China five times during his stay in power (1973, 1974,1980,1982 and 1994). Chinese officials who have visited the DRC include: Huang Hua, Minister of Foreign affairs (June 1978) and li Xiannian, Vice-Premier of the State Council (January 1979).

President Laurent Kabila was among the first African presidents to promote relations with China in what has come to be known as the ‘look East policy’. Soon after assuming power in 1997, he turned to China for economic and military assistance. Kabila expanded and intensified DRC-China relations, buying most of his armaments from China in exchange for minerals. Kabila’s ‘Go East’ policy attracted animosity from the west. While not doing anything serious to threaten western interests in the DRC, Kabila’s intention to shift the source of development away from the west was seen as a threat. He refused to accept financial assistance from the IMF and the World Bank and turned to China for development assistance, especially military and agricultural equipment. However, before this relationship could mature, Laurent Kabila was assassinated in January 2001. His son Joseph Kabila adopted a more pragmatic approach to Western investment.

Only in Zambia does the relationship appear straightforward. China’s political connections to Zambia are deep-rooted, dating back to the days of the liberation struggles, and these are being used to promote economic engagement. China has been extending assistance to Zambia prior to and after the latter attained independence in 1964. Most of the Chinese recipient countries, including Zambia, were instrumental in supporting the one-China policy, whereby Taiwan is recognised as part of the People’s Republic of China. Chinese aid at that time was seen not only as South-South co-operation but as a means of strengthening the fight against apartheid because it was meant to strengthen Zambian self-sufficiency and thus reduce its dependence on apartheid South Africa.                                        

This brief history shows that there are grounds for insisting that the Chinese role is an expression of an historical relationship. But these grounds are, on examination, far flimsier than either China or Southern African governments would have us believe. The history is marked by estrangement as well as friendship and, on its own, is an insufficient basis for explaining the strength of the current relationship.

About the author(s)

Claude Kabemba is the Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW). In 2006, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) asked him to spearhead the formation of SARW. He holds a PhD in International Relations (Political economy) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Thesis: Democratisation and the Political Economy of a Dysfunctional State: The Case of the Democratic Republic of Congo). Before joining SARW, he worked at the Human Sciences Research Council and the Electoral institute of Southern Africa as a Chief Research Manager and Research Manager respectively. He has also worked at the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Centre for Policy Studies as Policy Analyst. Dr. Kabemba’s main areas of research interest include: Political economy of Sub Saharan Africa with focus on Southern and Central Africa looking specifically on issues of democratization and governance, natural resources governance, election politics, citizen participation, conflicts, media, political parties, civil society and social policies. He has consulted for international organizations such Oxfam, UNHCR, The Norwegian People’s Aid, Electoral Commissions and the African Union. He has undertaken various evaluations related to the work of Electoral Commissions and civil society groups interventions in the electoral process in many African countries. He is regularly approached by both local and international media for comments on political and social issues on the continent. His publication record spans from books (as editor), book chapters, journal articles, monographs, research reports, and newspaper articles.


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