The construction of the first public-private expressway in Kenya financed and built by China Communication Construction Company and China Railroad and Bridge Corporation was launched on October 16, 2019. President Uhuru Kenyatta (holding flag) commissioned the Expressway.

“Today, when the peoples of Asia and Africa are increasingly taking their destiny into their own hands, even though the present economic and cultural co-operation among ourselves cannot yet be of a very large scale, it can be definitely said that this co-operation based on equality and mutual benefit will have a great future.” —Zhou Enlai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, 1955

“You remember, a few years ago, the Economist did a cover story on Africa: The Failed Continent. My friends and I, we talked about that for weeks. It was depressing; Africa, the failed continent! And now China comes, and they are talking about business, about investment, about win-win cooperation. Who knows? Maybe this change will be good for Africa.” —Ndubisi Obiorah, Nigerian Human Rights Activist, early 2000s

For anyone who is aware of China’s increasing stature on the global stage, one of their most popularly identified efforts is something called the One Belt One Road Mission, or as it is known now, the “Belt and Road Initiative.” The program is sprawling and best addressed piece by piece, but, as a starting point, we can talk about an arm that illustrates the blurry nature of Belt and Road while noting the familiar subject of African aid.

Here in the States, the thought of African aid ranges from the legendary Live Aid concerts, to the pictures of starving children run in ads by various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who provide food assistance, and on to the formal efforts of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The matter of African aid is probably one of our most visible humanitarian efforts.

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) aid to Africa, to the surprise of some casual observers, has roots that are as deep and old as those of the United States in the region.

First, it’s probably a good idea to define aid. Depending on interpretation, Live Aid concerts, military advisers and factory construction projects may all be defined as aid. Generally, the term aid, or to be more precise for our context foreign aid or foreign development assistance, are government resources sent with lenient to no terms of repayment to another government.

The aid is then split into either multilateral aid, which is given to an international organization like the United Nations (UN) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to funnel to the recipient, or bilateral aid, which is given directly to another government, by an agency like USAID or to an NGO serving that nation, like the International Red Cross.

In the case of PRC aid programs, these “standards,” which are very much the product of a wholly Western political thought and tradition, are not always the same. This has led to considerable confusion.

It’s worth noting, however, that China’s present program isn’t just some elaborate tale about Zheng He’s fleet and the tributes it collected. Instead, it starts when the story of the PRC begins in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War (1927-50). While Mao Zedong’s forces seized victory and drove the Kuomintang (nationalists) off the mainland to Taiwan where US forces barred further advances, he found that they could not claim a complete seizure of “China” as the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan was protected by the United States from immediately losing the China seat in international bodies like the UN.

What followed was a campaign internationally not only to spread the “people’s revolution” globally, but also to befriend or establish friendly states that would assist China in a push to displace the ROC entirely as the titleholder of “China.” As it turned out, the continent of Africa was filled with nations who, having recently been decolonized in various ways, were now looking to carve their own path into the future—preferably without “colonial” Western influences. And so, it was Zhou Enlai, Mao’s right hand, who took a tour to offer aid in Africa. That, however, is a story for another time.