Comrades-In-Arms: The Chinese Communist Party’s Relations with African Political Organisations in the Mao Era, 1949-76

Joshua Eisenman. Cold War History. Volume 18, Issue 4. November 2018.

This study examines the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) motives, objectives, and methods vis-à-vis its African counterparts during the Mao era, 1949-76. Beginning in the mid-1950s, to oppose colonialism and US imperialism, the CCP created front groups to administer its political outreach in Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, this strategy evolved to combat Soviet hegemony. Although these policy shifts are distinguished by changes in CCP methods and objectives towards Africa, they were motivated primarily by life-or-death intraparty struggles among rival political factions in Beijing and the party’s pursuit of external sources of regime legitimacy.


This article traces the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) relations with African political organisations from the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 until the death of Mao Zedong in September 1976. The objectives are to clarify the history of China-Africa political relations during the Mao era, highlight the evolution of the CCP’s approach, and elucidate changes in the institutional structure and elements of the party’s approach. It identifies four distinct periods of CCP political relations in Africa (1949-58, 1959-65, 1966-70, and 1971-76) and explains key trends and themes for each. These policy shifts are distinguished by changes in CCP methods and objectives towards Africa, but were motivated primarily by life-or-death intraparty struggles among rival political factions in Beijing, and the party’s pursuit of regime legitimacy. The promulgation of Mao’s revolutionary ideology and a tactical victory over the Soviet or American imperialists were significant, albeit secondary, considerations.

During the first phase, 1949-58, the CCP sought international recognition for its new regime and created various front groups and people’s organisations to administer its political outreach in Africa. The CCP promoted anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism as common conceptions of Afro-Asian solidary and developed the social networks necessary for continued political engagement. The failure of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) precipitated the Sino-Soviet split in 1958-59. Mao discredited his critics and distracted public attention from the crisis by claiming the Soviet ‘revisionists’ had plotted a coup d’état with traitors within the party. The result was the creation of a decidedly anti-Soviet policy in Africa and elsewhere. After building a stable structure for African political engagement in the early and mid 1960s, intraparty struggles during the Cultural Revolution produced a radicalised CCP approach that undermined these efforts. CCP leaders were aware of the reputational costs of this radical shift in policy towards Africa, but when faced with life-or-death political struggles at home they were willing to pay the price. When factional battles subsided in the early 1970s, however, the CCP again emphasised international recognition and expanded partnerships with African parties and organisations across the political spectrum.

Building the Bandung Spirit, 1949-58

Between 1949 and the First Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, political outreach to Africa was not a CCP priority. Instead, to secure its external legitimacy the CCP worked to win as many diplomatic partners as possible away from the Chinese Nationalist Party in Taipei. In the early 1950s, the small number of independent African countries coupled with the emergence of anti-colonial revolutionary political groups led the CCP to create a variety of political outreach organisations to engage them. The CCP was a strong and cohesive organisation, but had its hands full subduing the country’s disparate regions and combating the US-led forces in Korea. Logistical barriers—long distances, few worthy vessels or aircraft, limited telephone lines, and inadequate knowledge about the continent—limited Sino-African interactions. Meanwhile, in Africa, colonial powers remained supreme and there were few well-organised anti-colonial resistance groups with the capacity to partner with the CCP.

Throughout the 1950s, the CCP built the institutional infrastructure to facilitate political interaction with African organisations. Before Bandung, the CCP leadership—rather than diplomats or military officers—dominated Africa relations. Chinese and African delegates met while attending Soviet-financed international meetings and the CCP hosted a few African leaders in China during this period. In 1953, Walter Sisulu, Secretary General of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), visited China, as did Félix-Roland Moumié of the Union des Populations du Cameroon (UPC). These early contacts with an opponent of the white-ruled government in South Africa and a Cameroonian leader opposing the French colonialists were harbingers of future CCP support for African revolutionaries.

In the 1950s, the CCP created numerous front groups to expand its relations with likeminded African political organisations. Party-led groups known as ‘mass organisations’ (qunzhong zuzhi), ‘united front groups’ (tongzhan tuanti), and ‘people’s organisations’ (minjian tuanti) worked to expand and enhance CCP relations with African political organisations and liberation movements. Although some CCP organisations were identified as party organs, others were ostensibly public associations quietly controlled by the party. Generally speaking, CCP mass organisations (e.g. All-China Youth Federation) appointed the personnel of united front groups (e.g. the Union of Chinese Writers) who, in turn, administered people’s organisations (e.g. the Liaison Committee with the Permanent Bureau of the Afro-Asian Writers Conference). The All-China Students’ Federation, for instance, was bound by its constitution ‘under the leadership of the CCP to support the struggle against imperialism and colonialism.’

Another front group, The China Islamic Association, managed CCP outreach to African Muslims. In 1951, Mohammed Makin, a graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo teaching Arabic in Beijing, addressed the Chinese People’s Institute for Foreign Affairs on how to enhance political relations with Muslims. In 1953, Makin helped establish the China Islamic Association, which was headed by a Chinese Uighur and CCP loyalist Burhan Shahidi. In accordance with its mandate to ‘support the CCP leadership,’ the Association used Islam as an entrée to enhance collaboration with Muslim groups both inside China and internationally. After contacts with Egypt began in 1955, it became an important conduit for political outreach in North Africa, which by 1956 had an independent bloc of Muslim countries. During the 1950s and 1960s, Shahidi and other leaders led delegations to Africa and hosted visitors from Muslim countries.

On 5 October 1954, the CCP magazine World Culture published an article entitled ‘Foreign Relations of New China During the Past Five Years’ calling for the party to adopt a more active global approach. It argued that the independence struggles of Asian, African, and Latin American states ‘share a common interest in the wiping out of colonialism, and there are no basic conflicts of interest among them.’ This clarion call for unified ‘opposition to the imperialist policy of aggression and war’ marked the beginning of proactive CCP outreach to African independence groups—creating political networks later used to channel material support.

The 1955 Bandung Conference was a watershed in CCP political relations in Africa. Premier Zhou Enlai, who led the Chinese delegation, interacted with delegations from Egypt, Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, and soon-to-be-independent Sudan and Ghana. At Bandung, the CCP supported African independence movements’ fight against colonialism and imperialism. Zhou advocated the so-called ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,’ introduced with India the year before, as guidelines for interaction among post-colonial African and Asian nations. After an agreement in 1955 to purchase Egyptian cotton and an exchange of trade offices, Egypt became the first African country to recognise the PRC. China supported Egypt during the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and provided a $5 million credit.

Before 1957, CCP support was almost entirely rhetorical. Afterward, Beijing began providing material support and arms to independent states including Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco, and Ghana, as well as to African independence movements. In Algeria, for instance, the CCP provided arms to the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), trained its fighters in China, and in 1958 recognised the Algerian Provisional Government.

China’s embassy in Cairo became a forward base for the CCP to spread its influence and assistance. Cairo was home to the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) and several African liberation groups. A CCP delegation attended the first AAPSO Conference in Cairo, which began in late 1957. Before the Conference, a rally was held in Beijing to support African national liberation movements. The Chinese Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity was established to administer relations with African political organisations via the AAPSO, and served as the principal venue for Sino-African political cooperation until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. The CCP used it first, to make contact with African political organisations, and then to transmit material support to them. In February 1958, a month after the first AAPSO Conference, Zhou equated its objectives with the CCP’s own liberation struggle:

The conference maintains that all peoples are entitled to the sacred rights of freedom, self-determination, sovereignty and independence. These resolutions without a doubt voiced the common will of hundreds of millions of people in Asia and Africa. There is still a long struggle ahead in the national independence movements in Asia and Africa … but the Asian and African peoples have already stood up and will never again be crushed.

The CCP helped plan the First Afro-Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in October 1958, which included delegations from Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Sudan, and Egypt. The Chinese representatives used the gathering to prepare for the All-African People’s Conference held afterward in Accra, Ghana, and to arrange subsequent visits to China for Angolan, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Senegalese, Somali, and Ugandan delegations. In December 1958 in Accra, the CCP delegation met with various leftist African leaders including Patrice Lumumba of the Mouvement National Congolais, Félix-Roland Moumié of the UPC, and Holden Roberto then of the Angolan People’s Union.

The Sino-Soviet Split, 1959-65

Until 1959, gaining regime legitimacy via international recognition remained the primary objective of CCP outreach in Africa. That year, however, Mao’s ill-fated Great Leap Forward (GLF) precipitated an intraparty factional struggle, which caused the rapid deterioration of CCP-Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) relations, thus injecting a distinctly anti-Soviet line into CCP relations with African political organisations.

As Chinese leaders prepared for the July 1959 Lushan Conference, growing tensions within the CCP undermined the Sino-Soviet alliance. Defence Minister Peng Dehuai, who had returned from meeting with Khrushchev on 24 May, wrote to Mao on 14 July calling for an evaluation of the ‘losses and achievements’ of the GLF. On 21 July, while Peng was criticising the GLF at Lushan, Khrushchev was in Poland denouncing the CPSU’s own failed experiment with communes in the 1920s.

After Lushan, Mao linked Peng’s 14 July letter to his 24 May meeting with Khrushchev and used them to claim Peng was a Soviet agent. In October, during a contentious visit to Beijing, Khrushchev told Mao that Peng was innocent and pushed for the Defence Minister’s reinstatement. These comments only affirmed Mao’s suspicion that Peng’s ‘antiparty plot’ was hatched in collusion with the CPSU. In December, Mao denounced Peng for his ‘total negation’ of the GLF and accused him of leading ‘a coup attempt supported by [his Soviet] friends.’ The split was solidified in July 1960 when Khrushchev ordered Soviet experts to leave China and cut material and military aid. In this way, the anti-CPSU line adopted in Africa and elsewhere was primarily intended to strengthen Mao’s position vis-à-vis his rivals within the party after the GLF’s failure. Chen Jian explains:

Mao used the recall of Soviet experts as a convenient excuse to make the Soviets the scapegoat for the Great Leap Forward’s disastrous consequences. The chairman also found in the conflict with the Soviets a long-term weapon he badly needed to enhance the much-weakened momentum of his continuous revolution. In the early 1960s Mao repeatedly used the conflict with Moscow to claim that his struggle for true communism was also a struggle for China’s national integrity. And as far as Chinese politics was concerned, the growing confrontation with Moscow made it more difficult for those of Mao’s comrades who disagreed with some of the chairman’s radical ideas to challenge him.

Throughout the early 1960s, the CCP used the AAPSO as a venue to both expand contacts with African political organisations and impugn Soviet ‘revisionism.’ At the second AAPSO conference in Conakry, Guinea, in 1960 the Chinese delegation enhanced its relations with the growing number of independent African countries and called for an international united front against imperialism. To demonstrate CCP leadership and support for the conference, Beijing held another ‘mass rally’ including hundreds of representatives from relevant united front groups and people’s organisations. At the rally, which was organised by the Chinese Committee for Afro-Asian Solidarity, CCP stalwart Liao Chengzhi called for ‘the liberation of all African peoples,’ and claimed that ‘the fire of revolution has engulfed the whole [African] continent,’ and pledged Chinese support for the ‘national liberation struggles of all oppressed nations.’ China’s party-controlled press proclaimed that Africa was engulfed in revolutionary zeal and reported that African parties were ‘studying Mao’s works and using Chinese guerrilla methods.’

In the early 1960s, as the CCP’s network of African comrades grew, it expanded existing front groups and people’s organisations, and created new ones to transmit its support to them. For instance, the aforementioned China Islamic Association, together with the All-China Federation of Trade Unions and the Asian Solidarity Committee of China, provided funds to the FLN via the AAPSO Secretariat in Cairo. CCP-led organisations also hosted African political parties in China. For example, in 1959 and 1960, respectively, Morocco’s National Union of Popular Forces and Angola’s People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) visited Beijing upon the invitation of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs.

The CCP continued to use Islam as a means to develop relations with political organisations in the Muslim world. African Muslims were invited to China for Islamic festivals and to worship in Chinese mosques. The China Islamic Association paid particular attention to the hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca, and beginning in 1955 sent at least one delegation each year until 1964. After the hajj, Chinese Muslims might visit their African brethren to tout the religious freedoms they enjoyed under CCP rule. Pilgrimage trips regularly travelled to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and/or Sudan, but could range as far as Guinea, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Nigeria. But as Alaba Ogunsanwo explains: ‘The long detour from Saudi Arabia to Guinea and Senegal would hardly have been justified had there been no political motivation.’ The China Islamic Association worked with party-controlled publishing houses to prepare propaganda for distribution to African Muslims. Books were published in Arabic, English, and French including ‘Chinese Muslims’ Life,’ ‘Muslims in China,’ ‘The Holy Qur’an and Women’s Rights and Status,’ ‘Beijing Muslims’ Life,’ and ‘Chinese Muslims’ Religious Life.’ The PRC constitution was also translated into Arabic.

In 1960, to manage its Africa-focused political organisations, the CCP Central Committee created the Special Committee in Charge of African Affairs and the Chinese-African People’s Friendship Association (CAPFA) under the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. After an African country established diplomatic relations with China, the CCP would create a friendship association to conduct political outreach. Although CCP front groups appeared as independent entities, there was substantial overlap among their personnel. Eight of CAPFA’s founding members, for instance, worked with the CCP Youth League, and, as Bruce Larkin observed: ‘The International Liaison Department of the China Young Communist League was headed by the same persons who led the International Liaison Office of the All-China Youth Federation; in effect, the departments were identical.’

Also in 1960, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) established an African section to handle diplomatic relations with the 17 African nations that gained independence that year and the half dozen more that did so in 1961. While PRC diplomats competed with their rivals from Taipei to establish official ties with the growing number of independent African states, CCP-controlled front groups also cultivated relations in countries still under colonial rule. Thus, as French and English colonial rule receded in the early 1960s, the CCP increased support for revolutionary groups in countries under Portuguese control (i.e. Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sâo Tomé) and those under oppressive white minority governments (i.e. Rhodesia, Namibia, and South Africa).

Between 1958 and 1964, the CCP’s political outreach in Africa achieved impressive results. Beijing sent 144 missions to African countries and received 405 African delegations. These contacts gradually expanded, culminating in 1963, when 55 CCP missions touched down in Africa and 131 African delegations visited Beijing. By 1964, political outreach and host diplomacy had paid dividends with 15 of 35 independent African countries choosing to recognise Beijing, rather than Taipei—up from only seven in 1960.

Chinese experts in guerrilla warfare trained rebels from Guinea-Bissau fighting the Portuguese, and instructed and equipped nationalists from Portuguese colonies in Tanzania, Ghana, and Congo-Brazzaville. Trainers arrived in Ghana in 1964 and remained until a coup in early 1966 ended the programme. In Tanzania, the CCP supplied arms and trained Eduardo Mondlane’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) and later hosted FRELIMO fighters in China. The CPC also trained Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) forces in Tanzania and assisted the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) in Zambia. The CCP also provided military training for African revolutionaries via the Organisation of African Unity, and in China. Sidney Rittenberg (a.k.a Li Dunbai), a CCP member and propaganda official at the time, recalled a meeting between Mao and about 20 African revolutionaries in Beijing in June 1963:

The African guests were assembled in the hall … none from an independent state. They were all from various nationalist organizations or guerrilla movements. I knew a few of them were receiving military training in China. I recognized a cherubic young student who had once told me he was learning from the People’s Liberation Army how to use small arms, hand grenades, land mines, and booby traps.

Mao Zedong told the African visitors:

On behalf of the CCP, I’d like to welcome all our friends and comrades-in-arms from Africa … I know you are having a very difficult struggle in Africa, and you’ve already made big successes. Many battles remain to be fought, but Africa is coming alive. Here in China, we knew little about Africa. Then as you fought for independence and were successful, your countries came and made their presence known to us.

Most of the African revolutionary groups that the CCP supported were unsuccessful, including those in Angola, the Congo, and South Africa. One reason for these failures was the CCP’s deteriorating relationship with the CPSU. When the Soviets backed South Africa’s ANC, for instance, the CCP, which had begun exchanges with the ANC in 1953, switched its support to the rival Pan-Africanist Congress. Then, after the ANC prevailed, the CCP scrambled to reestablish relations and supply military equipment. The story was similar in Angola, where the CCP provided arms and training to the MPLA in the early 1960s, but as the MPLA grew closer to Moscow Beijing expanded support to its rivals—the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In 1964, UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi met Mao and Zhou and received military training in China; then returned the following year and again in 1967. During his exchange with a member of the aforementioned delegation of African revolutionaries, Mao linked his own domestic political struggles directly to the struggle against Soviet revisionism on the continent:

African visitor: The Soviets used to help us, and then the red star went out and they don’t help us anymore. On the contrary, they sell arms to our oppressors. What I worry about is: Will the red star over Tiananmen Square in China go out? Will you abandon us and sell arms to our oppressors as well?

Mao Zedong: I understand your question. It is that the USSR has turned revisionist and has betrayed the revolution. Can I guarantee to you that China won’t betray the revolution? Right now I can’t give you that guarantee. We are searching very hard to find the way to keep China from becoming corrupt, bureaucratic, and revisionist. We are afraid that we will stop being a revolutionary country and will become a revisionist one. When that happens in a socialist country, they become worse than a capitalist country. A communist party can turn into a fascist party. We’ve seen that happen in the Soviet Union. We understand the seriousness of this problem, but we don’t know how to handle it yet.

Mao’s response conflated the international struggle against Soviet revisionism with factional rivalries within the CCP. For Mao, African independence movements were extensions of China’s own revolution. By denouncing the Soviets as ‘fascists’ and ‘revisionists’, Mao was warning those inside China that if they supported proto-Soviet domestic and foreign policies they, like Peng, would be considered conspirators assisting a foreign plot to capitulate to imperialism.

Still, some CCP leaders advocated a more conciliatory line. In February 1962, with the consent of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, Wang Jiaxiang, head of the CCP’s International Department, produced several reports that argued China should foster a peaceful international environment to facilitate socialist construction at home. ‘It is necessary,’ Wang argued, ‘to carry out a foreign policy aimed at relieving tensions, not exacerbating them.’ Mao responded by accusing Wang of promoting a ‘prorevisionist line’ that would harm those fighting imperialism both at home and abroad.

After China openly opposed Soviet participation in the AAPSO in 1961 the organisation became increasingly marred by hostility. Moscow’s support for New Delhi during the 1962 Sino-Indian border war overshadowed the third AAPSO conference in Moshi, Tanzania, in early 1963. The dispute’s corrosive effect on the organisation alarmed many African representatives, who were reluctant to take sides. Only Niger condemned Chinese aggression against India, although others spoke out elsewhere. Then in June 1963, in the run-up to Zhou’s historic 10-country Africa tour, the CCP issued its Proposal Concerning the General Line of the International Communist Movement, which criticised the CPSU for ‘denying the great international significance of the anti-imperialist revolutionary struggles of the Asian, African and Latin American peoples, catering to the needs of imperialism and the promotion of its policies of old and new colonialism.’ The CCP, by contrast, called for all communists to ‘study the revolutionary experience of the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America, firmly support their revolutionary actions and regard the cause of their liberation as a most dependable support for itself.’

Zhou’s Africa tour in late 1963 and early 1964 was the most public Chinese official visit to Africa. The premier claimed the CCP was the vanguard of communist orthodoxy, depicted the CPSU as the revisionist patsies of imperialism, and called for Asian and African peoples ‘to unite in a common struggle against the enemy.’ On 20 December 1963, while in Cairo, Zhou stressed that ‘the differences between [the CCP] and the leaders of the CPSU involve our understandings of, and approach to, the fundamental principles of Marxism-Leninism.’ At an AAPSO Council meeting in March 1964, the Chinese representative again criticised Soviet positions on peaceful coexistence with the US, nuclear disarmament, and the resolution of territorial disputes.

After Khrushchev lost power in October 1964, Zhou visited Moscow to improve relations between the two communist parties. During the visit, the Soviet Defence Minister’s suggestion that the CCP overthrow Mao Zedong only further soured relations. Not surprisingly, the fourth and final AAPSO conference in 1965 in Winneba, Ghana, again demonstrated the Sino-Soviet dispute’s destructive effect on Afro-Asian solidarity, and led many Africans to conclude that the split was irreconcilable.

Maoist People’s Diplomacy, 1966-69

The Cultural Revolution at the MFA began with a staff meeting on 17 May 1966—the day after the Central Committee’s 16 May Circular kicked off the new political movement. On 6 June, Ji Pengfei, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, told the assembled MFA staff: ‘The Foreign Ministry has come to the stage of uncovering the monsters hiding among us. In all likelihood, there are some of them in each unit. It’s up to us to find out who they are.’ Hinting at his concerns, Ji cautioned the staff ‘not to cause losses in our foreign work. Do pay attention to differences between things domestic and foreign.’ A month later, in a statement reminiscent of attacks on Peng, Foreign Minister Chen Yi claimed traitors in the party are conspiring with Moscow:

Khrushchev prepared a coup d’état as soon as Stalin died. He succeeded and changed the color of the Soviet Union. The Soviets opposed Lenin by flying the flag of Leninism and opposed the red flag by flying the red flag. They want peaceful coexistence with the American imperialists. They collaborate with the U.S., oppose China and withdraw experts from China, trying to strangle China. They exercise political pressure on China, provoking us at our borders. We suspect that, if a coup d’état occurs in Beijing, their troops will come in and support the coup. They want to see a counter-revolutionary coup d’état, so that capitalists and landlords can restore their former life; then their Judgement Day would be postponed for a few more years. Their idea is not quite defeated, there is a clique preparing a coup d’état. Peng Zhen and his like are against the red flag but they are flying it.

In June, as the MFA prepared for the month-long Urgent Conference of Afro-Asian Writers, intraparty factional conflict threatened to disrupt Africa policy. Amid threats by rebel students to interrupt the conference, Chen deployed tight security to ensure it went smoothly. Chen’s attempts to repress the radicals proved short-lived, however. In August 1966, the MFA Red Guards began targeting senior diplomats and ransacking their homes looking for antiques, foreign books, and other ‘proof’ of their ‘crimes.’ Then on 9 September, Chen received a letter criticising the Chinese embassy in Tanzania for holding wasteful banquets, using expensive foreign cars, and rebuking the ambassador’s wife for wearing expensive clothing and jewellery. Chen forwarded the letter, and a similar one from Austria, to Mao who responded that evening by ordering him to distribute them to ‘all Chinese organs stationed abroad’ and instruct them to ‘get revolutionised, or it will get very dangerous.’ This warning, known as the September 9 instruction, was disseminated to all MFA staff. Soon afterward, Mao labelled Deputy Party Chairman Liu Shaoqi as ‘China’s Khrushchev,’ replaced him with Lin Biao, and had him held in terrible conditions precipitating his death in 1969.

In early 1967, the CCP leaders recalled one-third of China’s embassy staff and all ambassadors—except Ambassador Huang Hua in Egypt—to Beijing to ‘remould their ideology.’ Upon their return China’s diplomats were assigned to a dilapidated building in the old Foreign Ministry compound where each embassy was assigned an empty room. Sitting on bare floors, they studied documents, held meetings, carried out criticisms, and identified the revisionists, reactionaries, and foreign agents in their midst. This radical ‘reeducation’ programme adversely effected the CCP’s relations with African counterparts. On 12 February 1967, for instance, Chen and Ji were at the airport to greet a delegation from Mauritania and the MFA rebel supervisory team representative insisted on being introduced before Ji. Chen raged at him in front of the African guests: ‘You are a rebel, you rebel against me. What am I, a counter-revolutionary?’ Another incident occurred on 22 June 1968, when visiting Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, an admirer of Mao, inquired after Chinese Ambassador He Ying who was being reeducated and required Zhou’s permission to join the reception.

Meanwhile, in Africa China’s professional diplomats were replaced by less experienced, more radical, cadres who sought to promulgate Maoism in the countries they served. These ‘red’ diplomats channelled CCP support toward African revolutionary forces fighting guerrilla wars—a hallmark of Maoism. CCP relations with African partners changed from rhetorical support, host diplomacy, and limited arms shipments and training for mainstream revolutionary groups in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to fervent support for smaller, more revolutionary splinter groups that supported the Maoist political line in the late 1960s.

With the MFA weakened, the CCP-led people’s organisations including the Bureau of Afro-Asian Writers, the Afro-Asian Journalists Association, and the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organisation gained prominence in Sino-African political relations. In 1966, for example, Beijing released postage stamps commemorating the Afro-Asian Writers Conference as the vanguard of anti-imperialist revolutionary struggle. By contrast, during the Cultural Revolution Islam-based outreach was halted. Starting in 1966 with the ‘Four Olds’ campaign many mosques were closed or destroyed along with countless holy manuscripts. Muslims who resisted were imprisoned or worse and nearly all in government were purged.

During this period, CCP propaganda exaggerated Maoism’s influence among African political organisations, portraying the Great Helmsman shepherding a flock of African revolutionaries. In October 1966, the CCP Central Committee ordered that the dissemination of The Quotations of Chairman Mao become the foremost task of all embassies. On 9 December 1967 the People’s Daily reported: ‘More and more of the oppressed African nations are recognising that Mao Zedong Thought is their strongest weapon for gaining true independence, and armed struggle is their road to gaining liberation in Congo, Mozambique, Angola and “Portuguese” Guinea.’ The purpose was to demonstrate Maoism’s universal applicability, and secure the chairman’s place within the pantheon of communist leaders alongside Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Revolutionary rhetoric cost nothing, so if an African group rebelled, the CCP could provide political support and modest arms deliveries. By proclaiming that anti-colonial conflicts were Maoist revolutions, the CCP overstated its influence among African revolutionary groups even as the Cultural Revolution diminished its capacity to engage them effectively.

Ultimately, CCP support for militant revolutionaries in Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar, Senegal, Cameroon, Niger, and the Congo failed. Radical African leaders, including Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Modibo Keita in Mali, were replaced by more moderate leaders, placing Beijing in the awkward position of opposing established African governments. Many African governments became distrustful of the CCP, and several even broke diplomatic relations and expelled Chinese diplomats for subversion. Meanwhile, the CCP leadership became disillusioned with radical African liberation movements, which it came to view as ineffectual. During a meeting with Major Alfred Raoul of the National Council for Revolution for the Congo (Brazzaville) in September 1969 Zhou candidly admitted: ‘We have much less understanding with Africa than we did in 1963, 1964, and 1965.’

Return to Normalcy, 1970-76

As intraparty struggles abated, the CCP’s relations with African political organisations were normalised. In 1969, Mao directed four prominent CCP officials—the so-called ‘Four Marshals’—to produce a report on foreign affairs. In July, they recommended that Beijing enhance its international engagement. To expand the ‘international united front of anti-imperialism and anti-revisionism,’ they wrote, ‘we should enhance our embassies and consulates in other countries, and actively carry out diplomatic activities.’ The CCP initiated policy changes that ’emphasised the differentiation between domestic and foreign affairs,’ and Chinese diplomats were returned to Africa to rebuild political partnerships. From 1970 to 1976, China provided more money (mostly loans) to Africa than the Soviet Union—$1.8 billion to 28 African countries compared to the Soviet Union’s $1 billion to 20 states. Over the same period, more than 20 African countries established diplomatic ties with the PRC. Between 1971, when the PRC, with ample African support, was able to claim China’s UN seat, and 1975, Beijing hosted 16 African heads of government.

The normalisation of CCP relations with African partners in the 1970s reflected its gradual transformation from a revolutionary to a ruling party; a domestic transition that reoriented its approach to Africa. The CCP no longer touted itself as the centre of world revolution, and became willing ‘to grant ideological autonomy, and when African countries seemed to embark on a policy closely akin to Chinese thinking, Peking refrained from claiming that the Africans were following a Maoist path,’ Eugene Lawson observed. At the National Conference on Foreign Affairs in May 1971, Zhou criticised the ‘self-glorification, use of inappropriate language, the language of exaggeration, to impose China’s ideas on others,’ and called for the CCP to begin working with organisations across the political spectrum:

China is in a new situation. Foreign affairs work should therefore be somewhat different than in the past. There should be changes. In the Cultural Revolution, China almost severed relations with many countries, and activities in many areas were suspended. Now things will go differently. Not only foreign Leftists will come, but middle-of-the-roaders will come, and some Rightists will also come. We must adapt ourselves to the new situation.

Zhou’s speech paved the way for the CCP to build relations with several conservative African governments. In October 1971 and January 1973, for instance, Mao hosted Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie and Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, respectively. The party stopped supporting revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow independent African governments—with the exception of Ethiopia—but continued to assist liberation movements fighting colonial and white-ruled governments. The Sino-Soviet split remained the primary, often the only, determinate of which African organisations received Chinese largesse. In Maoist terms, the CPSU was the CCP’s ‘primary contradiction’ and the United States, although still ‘imperialist,’ became a temporary partner in a united front against the ‘social-imperialist’ Soviet Union. This political and rhetorical shift was fully implemented following the mysterious death of Lin Biao in September 1971 after yet another alleged Soviet supported coup attempt.

The US, for its part, helped to facilitate China’s new policy. As Gregg Brazinsky has observed: ‘America’s new willingness to support rather than undermine Beijing’s status in international affairs enabled the two countries to shift from competition to limited cooperation against the Soviets.’ In Angola, for instance, China cooperated with the US and South Africa’s apartheid regime to aid UNITA and FNLA against the Soviet and Cuban backed MPLA. Similarly, in Sudan, a failed coup in 1971 by army officers sympathetic to the Soviet-backed Sudanese Communist Party resulted in the execution of the conspirators. Rather than support the Sudanese communists, however, Zhou praised Khartoum for ‘victoriously smashing a foreign subversive plot.’


During the Mao era, the CCP’s Africa policy was held hostage to domestic political struggles among leadership factions. During times of relative party cohesion, exchanges and support from African political organisations served to affirm the regime’s international legitimacy vis-à-vis its rival in Taipei and Maoism’s legitimacy vis-à-vis ‘revisionism’ at home and abroad. During times of intense factional struggle, however, notions of the national interest were subjugated to the most primordial human instinct: self-preservation. During the Cultural Revolution, seasoned CCP foreign affairs leaders, including Zhou and Chen, understood that aggressive revolutionary diplomacy would not enhance CCP legitimacy or effectively counter the Soviets, yet they implemented it anyway. They were among thousands of CCP cadres that knowingly sacrificed China’s international status and ’caused losses in foreign work’ because ultimately their fate, and that of their families, was more closely tied to politics in Beijing than to the quality of CCP relations with African political organisations.