Chinese Aid and Development in Africa During the 1960s


A review of Old Comrades and New Brothers: A Historical Re-Examination of the Sino-Zanzibari and Sino-Tanzanian Bilateral Relationships in the 1960s, by Alicia N. Altorfer-Ong.

Alicia Altorfer-Ong’s dissertation examines the historical relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the East African nation of Tanzania. Drawing on archival materials from four continents, as well as published primary sources, oral interviews, and relevant secondary literature, Altorfer-Ong teases apart the complexity of Sino-Tanzanian relations, increasing our understanding of bilateral relations in the case of both Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the international history of decolonization, and the nature of and impetus for PRC aid and development assistance in Africa during the 1960s.

The first chapter lays out an important premise of the study – the uniqueness of the relationship between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Altorfer-Ong challenges the traditional narrative, which focuses on 1967 and the building of the TanZam railway. By beginning her study in the late 1950s, she is able to describe how Sino-Tanganyikan and Sino-Zanzibari relations differed in the pre-1964 unification period. This chapter focuses on the early nature of Sino-Zanzibari relations, and the significance of Zanzibari nationalists for the PRC gaining a foothold in East Africa. As Altorfer-Ong explains, communist bloc relations were strengthening as early as late 1959 and “cultivated further by the Zanzibari Marxist elite, for which Maoism offered a nationalist mantra and development strategy” (p. 45).

Chapter 2 focuses on the other side of these relations, that of Tanganyika. The Sino-Tanganyikan relationship is described here as existing in similar phases to the evolution of the Zanzibari relationship: a nationalist phase from the late 1950s to 1961, the immediate post-independence phase (1962-1964), and the post-unification phase, which lasted until the end of 1965. However, unlike the evolution of the Sino-Zanzibari relationship, the evolution of the Sino-Tanzanian relationship was gradual and relatively smooth, largely due to the influence of the Afro-Asian solidarity movement in Tanganyikan decolonization.

In the third chapter, a specific element of the Sino-Tanzanian relationship is analyzed – that of military relations. Altorfer-Ong explains that initially the intensification of relations through military assistance served to strengthen bilateral relations, which had previously only been diplomatic in nature. However, relations became strained as military assistance also led to the arms build-up of Zanzibari nationalists, further destabilizing the already intense post-independence domestic situation in Tanzania. Nonetheless, the overall effect was positive, leading to Nyerere’s choice of the PRC as its sole source of military assistance in 1969.

While the first three chapters of the dissertation focus on a period not previously examined in terms of Chinese influence in Tanzania, the topic of the fourth chapter is one that has been studied at length in both contemporaneous and recent literature – the negotiations for the building of the TanZam railway. Altorfer-Ong continues a domestic Tanzanian focus here, describing both African agency in the negotiations and how the railway led to increasing Tanzanian acceptance of the PRC’s political and social model of communism/socialism. The chapter also examines three factors previously sidelined in understandings of the negotiation for the railway: early negotiations, difficulties in utilizing PRC aid (particularly from the West, as well as from the Soviet Union), and the importance of Rhodesian UDI for understanding the necessity of the railway.

In Chapter five, a unique case study is examined that further delves into our understanding of the nature of PRC aid and the importance of rhetoric in this understanding. Here, Altorfer-Ong examines PRC medical aid, which she argues made “significant gains from a relatively modest aid programme because of the legacy of colonial neglect” (p. 230). Health diplomacy was uniquely Chinese as well as useful and important for Tanzania, and particularly Nyerere’s policies of self-reliance, socialism, and his villageisation program.

The final substantive chapter, Chapter 6, takes the nature of PRC aid and provides a description of its impetus, as well as how its origins ensured strengthened relations between Tanzania and the PRC despite the latter’s domestic turmoil due to the Cultural Revolution. Altorfer-Ong describes the “resilience” of the Sino-Tanzanian relationship during this period, due to Mao’s seeing Nyerere as an ally rather than a rival (p. 318). Therefore, despite a number of difficulties at every level during this tenuous period for the PRC, ties were maintained and further solidified.

Altorfer-Ong concludes that the nature of Sino-Tanzanian relations in the 1960s was unique and developed in three distinct periods. The complexity of the relationship is evidenced both by the import of relations to both nations, as well as its resilience despite domestic and international strains. This dissertation adds to the growing body of literature on PRC and African relations, including those in the immediate post-colonial period, in both English and Chinese. In addition, it adds to our understanding of Tanzanian foreign policy and its dedication to non-alignment, as well as contributes a nuanced case study to development studies.

Jessica Achberger
Southern African Institute for Policy and Research

Primary Sources
Chinese Foreign Ministry Archive
National Archives (Kew), United Kingdom
Tanzanian National Archive
Zanews collection
Oral history interviews

Dissertation Information
London School of Economics and Political Science, 2014. 355 pp. Primary Advisor: Joanna Lewis.

Image: Selection from the Stefan Landsberger Chinese Poster Collection, International Institute of Social History (Amsterdam).

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