H-Diplo Article Review 1153- Burnham on Sun, "Supplied Cash and Arms but Losing Anyway: Chinese Support of the Lumumbist Insurgencies in the Congo Crisis'

christopher ball's picture

H-Diplo Article Review 1153

21 December 2022


Jodie Yuzhou Sun, “Supplied Cash and Arms but Losing Anyway: Chinese Support of the Lumumbist Insurgencies in the Congo Crisis (1959-65).” Cold War History 22:4, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2022.2050699

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor:
Lori Maguire | Production Editor: Christopher Ball

Review by Thomas C. Burnham, Keble College, University of Oxford

Jodie Yuzhou Sun frames her article with a quotation from a 1973 conversation between Mao Zedong and the President of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko. In their conversation, the Chinese leader candidly acknowledged that his country had stood on the side of the forces arrayed against Mobutu in the 1960s (2).[1] During the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s tumultuous independence and subsequent civil unrest and wars known as the “Congo Crisis” (1960-65), the People’s Republic of China was a vocal supporter of the country’s first Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. They went on to provide limited material and military assistance to Lumumbaist rebels called the Simbas following his assassination in 1961. The Simba Rebellion (1963-65) was a collection of discrete Congolese guerrilla movements directed against the US-backed Armée Nationale Congolaise then commanded by Mobutu, and the collapse of their movement was followed by the coup which swept Mobutu into power. A Chinese Communist Party publication records that Mobutu amiably replied to the Chairman, “The things which came between us in the past should be written off in one stroke” (一笔勾).[2] Mao agreed. With the accession of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the United Nations in 1971 and its normalization of relations with the US in 1972, history was history. Sun’s article provides a chronological exploration of the complex events which came between the two countries in the 1960s, showing that while they may have been water under the bridge for Mao and Mobutu, these events had wider implications for the PRC’s policy in Africa as a whole during the 1960s and beyond.

Sun sets out to address the fact that despite its importance, the story of the PRC’s involvement in the Congo Crisis, a key event in the history of the Cold War and decolonisation, remains imperfectly understood. This is due to the inaccessibility of Chinese archival materials. Sun seeks to address this lacuna through the use of materials which were available during the brief window when the PRC Foreign Ministry Archives were relatively open to scholars from 2008-11.[3] To introduce previous understandings of the PRC’s role in the Congo, the article first acknowledges the findings of the handful of scholars who have been able to make use of the Foreign Ministry Archives.[4] According to Sun, previous engagements with this topic have not yet offered an on-the-ground understanding which seriously confronts global dynamics and local realities simultaneously. Doing so, Sun argues, would make clear that the PRC’s actions in the Congo were primarily intended to establish for Beijing a leadership role, anchored on its support for rural guerrilla struggles, in the then newly independent countries of the Third World. It would further show, Sun concludes, that the PRC sought to do so in a way which avoided open confrontation with the US in another episode of Beijing’s preference for “safe revolution,” a phrase attributed to leading historian, Niu Jun (14).[5]

The substance of the article begins with the PRC’s earliest efforts at outreach to Congolese nationalists in 1959, the eve of the Congo’s independence, and ends with the collapse of the Simba Rebellion in 1965. It first summarises the PRC’s limited interaction with Lumumba and his beleaguered supporters, including its political and financial support for the short-lived first Stanleyville government from 1961-63. The article notes that, in the wake of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), PRC foreign policy was characterised by “inching along, being enthusiastic in political matters but remaining reserved in terms of economic assistance” (步前,政热经), an observation borrowed from prominent historian of the PRC’s activity in Africa, Jiang Huajie.[6] Sun then makes the trenchant argument that, by the time of the Congo’s independence, a shift was occurring such that the PRC’s political enthusiasm would translate into concrete support for rural guerrilla movements (7).

The article subsequently turns to what Sun considers to be the key dynamic driving that shift, the Sino-Soviet Split. At first, the PRC was committed to “an optimistic assessment of events” and sought to avoid open criticism of the Soviet Union in terms of its activities in the Congo. However, when the Soviet Union closed its embassy in Stanleyville in 1961, PRC leaders began to voice their concerns. In closing its embassy, the Soviet Union had abandoned Antoine Gizenga, “the inheritor of Lumumba’s political legacy” (9). In response, the PRC not only politically supported Gizenga by maintaining their diplomatic mission there, but also rendered financial assistance “with the expectation that he would be dedicated to a guerrilla war.” As Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated further that same year, “China’s policy towards the Congo began to diverge from that of the Soviet Union, towards an ostensibly radical orientation” (10).

Having given the reader a firm understanding of the PRC’s ideological and strategic posture in the region prior to the heyday of its military provision there, the article leaps forward to the Simba Rebellion, showing how and why this posture evolved as Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated even further. The central impact of the Sino-Soviet Split on the PRC’s decision-making in the Congo, in Sun’s telling, is that it concluded that the world revolution was in need of “genuine revolutionary leadership.” What that meant, precisely, is the issue. Sun poses the question thus: “[W]as the nature of a revolution determined by its instruments at the rural mass level or the class element of the leadership itself?” (12).

The article illuminates the rubric the PRC government adopted for answering this question in not only the Congo but across all of Africa. The Lumumbaist rebels who emerged following the collapse of the first Stanleyville government were diverse, but the most prominent and well-remembered among them was Pierre Mulele, Lumumba’s Education Minister turned guerrilla warrior. Mulele had secretly received some training in the PRC and had thus “earned himself the reputation of a Maoist” (12). As Sun notes, this latter description is of some contention, and some have argued that Mulele’s Maoism was overblown and that he was influenced far more by local culture and concerns.[7] Nonetheless, he best represented the spear tip of “the first wave of African socialism” (12-13). Mulele, it would seem, was the most likely candidate for genuine revolutionary leadership over the Congolese sphere of the world revolution. However, here Sun makes a subtle point. Setting aside the fact that Mulele’s Maoism is subject to debate, “China’s standard of ‘a genuine revolutionary leadership’ appeared ‘anti-imperialist’ rather than ‘anti-capitalist’” (13). What was crucial was the commitment to armed struggle, not the degree to which a rebel movement subscribed to Marxist ideology. While Mulele certainly met that criteria, he was not alone.

It is here where Sun makes a significant archival discovery. Leonard Mitoudidi, an important figure who has been neglected by explorations of the Congo Crisis and the Simba Rebellion, emerges in Chinese archival materials as the most consistent liaison between the socialist camp and the arrayed forces of the Congolese rebels. In Sun’s words, “Mitoudidi was one of Beijing’s most trusted allies” (11), and his death was viewed by the PRC “as a ‘watershed’ that led to the decline of the leftist guerrillas on the eastern front” (13). Rather than focus on his politics, Sun shows that the Foreign Ministry was impressed instead with Mitoudidi’s disciplined commitment to covert struggle against the Congolese government. In short, he was preferred by Beijing because he was considered to be a “genuine nationalist” (rather than an opportunist), not because he was a Marxist.

The article closes with the slow collapse of the Simba Rebellion which followed Mitoudidi’s death and Operation Dragon Rouge. It shows that during this time, the PRC counterintuitively continued to support even leaders which it identified as being closer to the Soviet Union, further establishing that its operative criterion was the rebels’ evident commitment to armed struggle. Among those leaders was Lumumba’s Minister of Defence, Gaston Soumialot, who conducted a tour of the PRC, Cuba, and the Soviet Union, where he made his last appeals for assistance before returning to the Congo to face defeat and ignominy.[8] With the collapse of the Simbas, only Laurent-Désiré Kabila, another covert beneficiary of the PRC’s support during this time, remained, and he continued to wage war against the government until he marched into Kinshasa, leading an army of child soldiers in 1996.

The article sets out to explore the Congo Crisis “on the ground” (3), but it remains largely concerned with the rebel leadership and their benefactors in Beijing. Sun does nod to the fact that local realities—the rebels’ need for cross-border assistance, their lack of supplies, etc.—hampered the rebellion in ways which even Beijing was ignorant, and the discovery of Mitoudidi’s importance is a significant contribution, but the overall focus of the article is on the PRC’s posture in the region rather than on the vicissitudes of the doomed struggle itself.

Nonetheless, Sun has unveiled a poorly understood part of a crucial moment in the history of the PRC’s engagement with Africa during Cold War. Moreover, the article adds a unique twist to previous treatments of the Congo Crisis, using the issue of a revolutionary leadership in the wake of the Sino-Soviet Split as a point of synthesis. It dodges the pitfall of portraying PRC activity in the Congo against the background of the Sino-Soviet Split as either nakedly pragmatic or ideologically doctrinaire. Instead, it shows how, at certain junctures, the PRC’s antipathy towards the Soviet Union was overridden by its commitment to world revolution, insofar as it insistently supported forces which might have had a greater affinity for Moscow’s brand of socialism. Sun also highlights how, at other times, the PRC’s rigidly teleological view of revolution saw it seek out “genuine nationalists” when considering candidates for support, not self-avowed Marxists. Of course, this is in line with the expert understanding of CCP ideology with which Sun is doubtlessly familiar. Nevertheless, the article is a rare contribution to a growing body of literature on the engagement of socialist countries with Africa in the Cold War which effectively threads the needle between ideology and pragmatism.[9]


Thomas C. Burnham is a DPhil student with Keble College, University of Oxford and a lecturer of Chinese with the University of Exeter. His thesis research compares Soviet and Chinese engagement with Africa in the 1960s, and his next project will explore the influence of key Stalinist texts in the PRC during the Mao era and beyond.


[1] Zaire was what Mobutu renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1971. Its original name was restored soon after Mobutu was driven from the country in 1996. Throughout this article review, it will be referred to as “the Congo.”

[2] 刘万镇, 《毛泽东国际交往录》, (北京:中共党史出版社, 2003), 365.

[3] Kazushi Minami, “China’s Foreign Ministry Archive: Open or Closed?”, Sources and Methods: A Blog of the History and Public Policy Program, published 2 October 2017, web retrieved 9 September 2022: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/chinas-foreign-ministry-archive-open-or-closed.

[4] See Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Gregg Brazinsky, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017); and Alexander C. Cook, “Chinese Uhuru: Maoism and the Congo Crisis,” positions: east asia cultures critique 27, no. 4 (2019), pp. 569-95.

[5] 牛军, 《冷战时代的中国战略决策》, (北京:实际知识出版社, 2018).

[6] Sun’s translation is “pacing itself as it proceeds, showing a warm attitude towards political matters and a cool one towards economic matters.”

[7] Renee C. Fox, Willy De Craemer, Jean-Marie Ribeaucourt, “‘The Second Independence’: A Case Study of the Kwilu Rebellion in the Congo”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 8, no. 1 (1965): 106.

[8] After returning and announcing the end of the armed struggle in February 1966, Soumialot was severely beaten after refusing to pay the salaries of his staff. He was hospitalized and placed under police protection in Tanzania. Российский государственный архив ховейшей истории, фонд 5, опись 50, дело 766, листы 309-13, in Мазов С.В., Давидсон А.Б., Балезин А.С., Воеводский А.В., «Россия и Африка. Документы и материалы. 1961 – начало 1970-х», (Мосвка: Росспэн, 2021), 791-3.

[9] See Radoslav Yordanov, The Soviet Union and the Horn of Africa during the Cold War: Between Ideology and Pragmatism, (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2016); Мазов С. В., “Советско-нигерийские отношения накануне и в начале гражданской войны в Нигерии, 1966—1967 гг. (по материалам российских архивов)”. «История» 11, Выпуск 8 (2020); and Natalia Telepneva, Cold War Liberation: The Soviet Union and the Collapse of the Portuguese Empire in Africa, 1961-1975, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2021).