A Short History of Sino-African and Sino-Congolese Relations

China and Africa from Ancient Times to Decolonisation

China and Africa have been maintaining relations for centuries. Indirect trading contacts are dating back as far as the First Century AD when Indian intermediary traders were transacting business between China and the Red Sea region. Via the Maritime Silk Road, silk was exported to the Kingdom of Aksum (today’s Ethiopia and Eritrea), while ivory was brought from Africa to China. In the 15th century at the latest, direct contacts had been established: Between 1405 and 1433, admiral Zheng He led the fleet to Eastern Africa three times – the first verified direct contacts between the land of the dragon and Africa. In these years, several African states sent emissaries to China.

In the first decades, modern relations between Africa and the People’s Republic of China (established in 1949) were significantly shaped by the Cold War and Sino-Soviet relations. While Beijing had not been overly interested in Africa in the beginning of Mao’s reign, this was about to change with China’s alienation from the post-Stalin Soviet Union. A first sign of that change can be seen in the Asian-African Conference of Bandung. In 1955, 23 Asian and 6 African states met in Indonesia to deepen relations between the two continents. Moreover, the participants sought to distance themselves from both the US-led ‘first world’ and the Soviet-led ‘second world’ by condemning colonialism, hegemonism and imperialism. China and India were leading in formulating the Ten Principles of Peaceful Coexistence which were based upon the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence agreed upon between both countries in 1954. As will be shown later, these have been invoked until today:

- Mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
- Mutual non-aggression.
- Mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs.
- Equality and cooperation for mutual benefit.
- Peaceful co-existence.

As Bandung demonstrated, China was gradually developing a strategic interest in relations with Africa in order to grow into the role of a leader of the ‘Third World’ – even more so as relations with the ‘socialist brother’ worsened with the Soviet Union embarking on a détente policy vis-à-vis the United States. By the early 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split was complete and China’s Africa policy can be pointedly described as an anti-US-, but even more an anti-Soviet policy. The continent had become “an important arena in which China asserts herself […] in a mode which becomes clearly different from that of the Soviet Union” (Bruce D. Larkin). Official declarations condemned the American and Soviet ‘hegemons’. Beijing tried to undermine their influence in Africa in order to rally support among the developing countries and adopted a double-track strategy in its Africa policy:

(1) On the one hand, Beijing was trying to establish official relations with newly independent states – to form a “united front from above”. From the beginning, the PRC has placed reliance on an intensive policy of frequent high-level visits to African countries (a strategy that China has even expanded later) – embodied by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai’s two month visit to Africa in 1963/64. Furthermore, first official aid was given to Africa in these years. Here, the second driving force of China’s Africa policy came into play: The goal was not only to become a leader of the developing world, but also to enforce the One-China policy, that is: To get more and more countries to establish relations with the People’s Republic of China while at the same time breaking relations with Taiwan, the Republic of China. As more and more African nations gained independence, Africa was one of the main ‘battlegrounds’ of this Beijing-Taipei diplomatic war.

(2) On the other hand, China was supporting African liberation movements through the Afro-Asian Solidarity Fund Committee – to form a “united front from below” (W. A. C. Adie). Thus, Beijing formed close ties with the Pan Africanist Congress in South Africa or the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) in Rhodesia. Today’s rather close relations with Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe stem back to the time of Chinese training for ZANU rebels in the 1960s.

China and the Congo Crisis 1960-1965

Relations with the newly independent Congo are especially interesting in this regard. Being an icon of the African struggle against colonialism, China was endorsing Congo’s first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Only weeks before Lumumba’s dismissal from office in September 1960, Chen Chiakang, Chinese ambassador to Egypt and the “most experienced Chinese diplomat in Africa” (Larkin), visited Léopoldville (now Kinshasa). Shortly after, China gave 1 million British pounds to the Lumumba government which – being under attack from several sides – had asked for support.

In January 1961, Beijing strongly condemned Lumumba’s assassination, organised a mass rally in Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium to protest the killing and (rightly) blamed the United States and Belgium for the crime. China went on and lent its support to Lumumba’s former deputy, Antoine Gizenga. Gizenga had formed a rebel government in Stanleyville which Beijing was quick to recognise, stating that “the lawful Congolese government is still there; its Deputy Prime Minister, Antoine Gizenga, is acting on behalf of the Prime Minister and the lawful Congolese government to exercise powers” (People’s Daily, 3 January 1961). Both driving forces of Chinese Africa policy were at full display: The PRC was showing that it was supporting Africa’s struggle against imperialist and neo-colonial US and Belgian intervention as well as fighting its diplomatic war against Taiwan – which was entertaining diplomatic relations with the government of Cyrille Adoula in Léopoldville. However, internal PRC documents show that Beijing “had only modest expectations for the Lumumba-Gizenga group” (Larkin): “The struggle of the Congo people is extensive, severe and heroic, but at present there is no core guidance organised by the workers’ class.” – and later stating: “The situation is favor- able but the leadership is weak” (People’s Liberation Army: Bulletin of Activities, issues of 1961).

This assessment proved right when Gizenga agreed upon a united government with Adoula and became his Deputy Prime Minister, ending the Chinese support for his movement. Not willing to concede defeat to Taipei, China shifted its focus to other ‘Lumumbists’ and supported Pierre Mulele and Gaston Soumialot in the following years. Mulele had been in exile in China and had undergone Maoist training – regarding both ideology and guerilla warfare. He started a guerilla operation as part of the so-called Simba Rebellion, while China trained further rebels in neighbouring countries. Yet, all these efforts proved unsuccessful, as the Mobutu-led Congolese army defeated the insurgents in 1965 with support from white mercenaries (for example the infamous German former World War II soldier called ‘Kongo-Müller’) as well as US and Belgian forces. That same year, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu seized power, ousting President Joseph Kasavubu and ending the Congo Crisis – only to embark on installing a dictatorship in the years to come.

China and Mobutu

China didn’t fail to notice that here was a new Congolese President who ruled the country with an iron hand and had a firm grip on power. Thus, “China concluded that the Congolese were not prepared to confront the government” and “shifted from hard-line ideology to more flexible pragmatism” (Shinn/Eisenman), decisively scaling down its aid for rebel groups. In the early 1970s, however, a huge turning point in Chinese Foreign Policy paved the way for easing tensions with Mobutu’s Congo: The rapprochement with the United States. As Mobutu was a strong ally of Washington, the normalisation of Sino-U.S. relations undoubtedly had a strong impact on Sino-Congolese relations. As with Ethiopia, only the rapprochement process between Washington and Beijing starting around 1969/70 made a rapprochement between China and the Congo possible. This was also true vice versa as Mobutu now felt that closer ties to the socialist PRC would not antagonise Washington.

In November 1972, the PRC and Zaire (Mobutu had renamed the country in 1971) established diplomatic relations. After the 1971 accession to the United Nations, this was another huge win for Beijing as Zaire was at the same time abandoning Taiwan. Of course, China ‘paid’ for Mobutu’s shift and pursued the same policy it had conducted vis-à-vis other African countries since the late 1950s: Rewarding diplomatic recognition with high-level visits and financing of lighthouse projects, most notably the TAZARA Railway in Tanzania and Zambia, dubbed the ‘Great Freedom Railway’. Not surprisingly, Mobutu was invited to Beijing in 1973, his first of five visits to the country; a Zairean stamp from 1975 shows his handshake with Chairman Mao. Furthermore, China helped build the Palais du Peuple in Kinshasa, a signature project housing both chambers of Parliament. Besides ‘turning’ Zaire from Taiwan to the PRC, Beijing, of course, was also happy to support a declared adversary of Moscow. This became obvious when China (among others) pledged help for Mobutu during the Shaba invasion when troops supported by the Soviet Union and Cuba invaded Zaire from Angola in 1977/78.

After the honeymoon period in the 1970s, China’s policy vis-à-vis the Congo turned more pragmatic which again was a consequence of larger shifts in Chinese foreign policy. Following Mao’s death and Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in 1978, the new leader not only embarked on an internal economic reform policy, but also changed Beijing’s foreign policy, subordinating foreign relations under the new imperative of economic growth and development. This economisation of foreign policy meant (1) that China’s aid to African nations was severely downsized and (2) that relations to developed nations were prioritised as they were seen as possible sources of investment and technology. Moreover, as tensions with the Soviet Union eased after Michail Gorbachev had come to power in 1985, the strategic and ideologic antagonism with the estranged socialist brother nation was losing importance. All of this lead to Africa – and Mobutu’s Zaire – becoming less and less relevant on China’s foreign policy radar.

China and Africa after Tiananmen

This development abruptly came to an end in 1989 when merely internal Chinese events changed the general direction of China’s Africa policy. The violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989 led to harsh protests among Western countries which imposed an arms embargo against China and tried to condemn and isolate the country internationally. In stark contrast, many African leaders either kept silent or voiced their support for the Chinese leadership, some of them because they felt that Western protest and sanctions are merely an attempt to halt the PRC’s economic upturn. Undoubtedly, however, some autocratic leaders also feared that similar democratic movements in their own countries could endanger their authority and therefore supported the political oppression

Whatever the case, Beijing realigned its foreign policy focus:

„In the past, China’s relations with Western countries have been overheated, giving a cold shoulder to the Third World countries and old friends (meaning Africa). Judging from the events in this turmoil, it seems that at a critical moment it was still those [...] old friends who gave China the necessary sympathy and support. Therefore from now on China will put more efforts in [...] developing relations with these old friends.” (Cheng Ming, Hongkong, October 10, 1989)

In only two years, China increased its aid for developing countries six-fold, intensified high-level visits to Africa and invoked the Bandung principles, most prominently “mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs” to distance itself from Western ‘neo-colonial’ politics.

Among the ‘worried’ African leaders who voiced their support for Beijing was Mobutu who was especially uneasy at that time because of the developments in Eastern Europe, fearing a domino effect. Not only did he closely follow the falling of many autocratic regimes in 1989/90; the execution of Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu is said to have deeply disturbed Mobutu. Even more importantly, the détente between Washington and Moscow in the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s eliminated the main reason why the United States was supporting his regime. With the Soviet Union withdrawing from Africa and dissolving some years later, the main driving force of US involvement in Africa had gone. Washington did no longer fear any Soviet ‘gain in African territory’ and subsequently was massively scaling down its engagement in the continent. Beyond that, Western countries started to introduce conditionality to their foreign and development policies, for example linking aid to progress in good governance or the respect for human rights. This has resulted in sanctions or threats of sanctions against some autocratic leaders, among them the Zairean President. In 1993, Mobutu stated: “I am the latest victim of the cold war, no longer needed by the U.S. The lesson is that my support for American policy counts for nothing.” Here lies the key for understanding the taking off of China-Africa relations after the end of the Cold War: In a time when the Soviet Union was completely leaving and almost all Western countries were turning their back on Africa, China was seriously expanding its engagement on the continent. Essentially, Beijing was stepping into a vacuum and was laying the political and diplomatic foundations for becoming the continent’s most important trading partner less than two decades later.

Chinese Africa Policy and the DRC in the New Millennium

Especially since the beginning of the new millennium, China-Africa relations are experiencing an unprecedented extension in all fields of cooperation. Of course, trade and investment relations have taken centre stage in media coverage all over the world and have been watched closely by Western governments and businesses. However, political and security relations have also deepened intensely.


In an unabridged version this article was first published in: Julien Bobineau, Philipp Gieg (Eds.) The Democratic Republic of the Congo. Problems, Progress and Prospects | La République Démocratique du Congo. Problèmes, Progrès et Perspectives. LIT VERLAG Dr. W. Hopf, Berlin 2016.

Reprint by kind permission of the publisher Veit D. Hopf, LIT Verlag Berlin. Further details about the book may be found here.

Philipp Gieg is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Political Science and Sociology in Germany. He specializes in Africa’s international relations and Indian foreign policy, particularly Indo-African and Sino-African relations, as well as German and European Foreign Policy.