In 1964 Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (left) toured Africa where he met with many African independence leaders. Haile Selassie (right) Emperor of Ethiopia received him albeit he would maintain a more Western oriented policy until his rule ended in a 1974 usurpation by the oligarchic Marxist-Leninist Derg. Photo by People’s Pictorial (PRC public source) 

“The imperialist countries of the West… are plundering the recipient countries in the name of ‘aid.’” —Xinhua News Agency, 1968

“Along with the people of other countries, we have won tremendous victories in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism, and in particular against the hegemonism of the superpowers… China’s seat in the United Nations, of which she had long been illegally deprived, has been restored to her. The number of countries having diplomatic relations with us has increased to nearly 100, and more than 150 countries and regions have economic and trade relations and cultural exchanges with us. Our struggle has won widespread sympathy and support from the people of all countries. We have friends all over the world.” —Zhou Enlai’s final address to the People’s Congress, 1975

Before continuing the story of China’s modern aid policy, we should stop to acknowledge Zhou Enlai. “In some sixty years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure than Zhou Enlai,” was how his peer, former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, described Zhou.

In 1975, at the tail end of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, Zhou proclaimed before the National People’s Congress and Mao Zedong his “Four Modernizations” whose focuses on material development were a stark contrast to  “revolutionary” policy that focused on upending society to create an idealized revolutionary state. Within a year he would be dead, but due to his influential actions and guardianship of many targets of the cultural revolution it would be his “Four Modernizations” that would guide the calculations of People’s Republic of China (PRC) policy going forward.

The “Four Modernizations” were the banner for policy reforms focused on agriculture, industry, military, and technology meant to bring China on par with the developed nations. China’s aid program was quickly a subject of contention in the post-Mao era as the expenses were significant for a nation that was nearly as poor as those receiving the aid. The aid program had already demonstrated value in another way, however, by elevating the legitimacy of the PRC as “China.”

At the end of World War II, the United Nations formed with a permanently seated security council helmed by the five major allied victors of the war. The reduction of the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan was a serious complication, but firm resistance from the West ensured that the Chinese seat and most nations would, for a time, continue to recognize Taiwan as China.

In an Africa where many nations were just emerging from the colonialist yoke, the Chinese found fertile ground to offer aid that helped “export The Revolution,” as Maoist doctrine termed it, while also encouraging the newest states of the rapidly expanding UN membership to support a PRC bid for being recognized as “China.”

As Chinese foreign minister in the 1950s, Zhou’s physical visits to African nations were a particularly prominent reminder of this in an era where many Western leaders of comparative stature were focused more on confronting the Soviet Union. The aid sent varied in form from arms sent to Maoist militias to communal farming projects.

Perhaps the most spectacular sign of things to come was the construction of the TAZARA railway, the longest stretch of rail in sub-Saharan Africa at the time, in Zambia from the late 60s to the mid-70s. This project would pay off with UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 in which a majority of nations, many of whom were relative newly minted, ordered that “China” was recognized as the PRC government and expelled the ROC, whose treatment as a nation has sat in a strange gray zone ever since.

The defeat of the ROC for the legitimacy of being China established that the aid program yielded net positives for the Chinese. It also established that in the future, it was important to maintain relations with developing countries as the PRC sought to cut their own path, one separate from the direct machinations of the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union.

China was a developing nation and hard pressed for resources, they would have to create a unique version of aid policy to serve their goals without breaking the bank. But that is a story for another time. That, however, is a story for another time.