H-Diplo Article Review 873- Hilger on Eisenman.  “Comrades-in-Arms: The Chinese Communist Party´s Relations with African Political Organisations in the Mao Era, 1949-76.”

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H-Diplo Article Review No. 873
17 July 2019

Article Review Editors: Diane Labrosse and Seth Offenbach
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii

Joshua Eisenman.  “Comrades-in-Arms: The Chinese Communist Party´s Relations with African Political Organisations in the Mao Era, 1949-76.”  Cold War History 18:4 (2018):  429-445.  DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2018.1440549.

URL: https://hdiplo.org/to/AR873

Review by Andreas Hilger, German Historical Institute Moscow

The complex interconnections between Cold War developments and decolonization processes constitute one of the most exciting and promising fields of international history after 1945. Here, the increasing sensibility of including corresponding research for multiple agencies has partially reshaped our understanding of both peripheries as well as metropolises. With regard to international twists and changes during the period, neither assumptions about a simple bipolar world nor an undifferentiated South-North-perspective provide sufficient analytical depth or explanatory power. In this general context, recent research has consequently widened the agenda by integrating more prominently the activities and motivations of Beijing into the discussion.[1] This extension remains closely linked to questions about the fundamental balance between Chinese domestic and foreign policy considerations as well as to debates about ideology versus power politics and national designs as driving forces behind Chairman Mao Zedong’s international maneuvers.[2] Joshua Eisenman´s comparatively brief article is located at these crossroads. By analyzing Chinese relations with African countries, movements, and organizations, it offers a commentary on the given controversies. For this purpose, the author relies upon new and not so new English and Chinese literature and additionally relies on a close reading of Chinese press releases of that period. However, some stimulating secondary works seem to be missing.[3] Eisenman’s article does not seem to introduce new archival findings.

Eisenman divides the Mao period of Chinese relations with Africa into four phases: 1949 to 1958, 1959 to 65, 1966 to 70, and 1971 to 76 (429-430). These subdivisions correspond with broader classifications of China´s international standing within its domestic as well as global general frameworks. As clear-cut cesura always do, the given periodization tends to smooth over the deflections within a given subdivision and to underemphasize transition periods. It thus seems to be difficult to detect compelling indications of a Chinese “Bandung spirit” before 1953/1954 (430).  Additionally, the periodization poses a more fundamental question. Chinese activities have always to a certain degree depended on African responsiveness or even originated from African initiatives. As early as 1955, the Egyptian government for its own reasons supported the Bandung conference, thus broadening the feedback possibilities for Chinese overtures. In 1960, the winning of independence of 17 African nations in the so-called ‘Year of Africa’ offered new opportunities for international competitors from East and West. The Congo crisis or the United Nations’ declaration “On the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples” likewise provided for new points of international contacts. During the 1960s, anti-socialist upheavals in African countries like Mali or Ghana could not but negatively influence their bilateral relationship with Beijing as well. Finally, Chinese connections with Africa often directly or indirectly profited from third parties. The Asian Writers Conference in Tashkent (1958) was a Soviet undertaking. It was not intended by Moscow to implement Chinese strategies or visions, particularly since Sino-Soviet relations were already beginning to degrade at that time (433). The impact of Egyptian-Israeli relations from war to peace on Chinese perceptions and approaches constitutes another case in point. Beijing’s general position towards inter-state conflicts in the Near East, Biafra or the Horn of Africa or towards rises and falls of African dictatorships deserve more attention as well.

Even so, Eisenman’s Sino-centered explanations reflect the article’s main argument. From his point of view, the more or less frequent, from time to time radical changes in Chinese approaches toward Africa “were motivated primarily by life-or-death intraparty struggles” and the “party´s pursuit of regime legitimacy” (430). according to Eisenman, ideological and other considerations were therefore of only secondary importance. With regard to the first subperiod the author thus highlights China´s struggle for international recognition against Taiwan. He then argues that Mao consciously and deliberately let the “Bandung spirit” evaporate. Instead, in the context of the catastrophic Great Leap Forward, the Chairman created a “decidedly anti-Soviet policy in Africa” to fight his domestic opponents (430). During the following years of the Cultural Revolution, intraparty struggles undermined China’s international positions. After subsequent factional struggles Beijing´s leadership restarted its efforts to gain international recognition (430).

In the final analysis, this contrasting juxtaposition between intensive bids for international recognition and domestic power on the one hand, and ideological positions on the other, somehow ignores questions about the ultimate aims and motivations of both domestic rivals and international pretenders alike (435). The struggle against Taipei´s international position also constituted a revolutionary mission, as the two Taiwan Strait crises during the alleged ‘Bandung’ period vividly demonstrated. Providing training facilities for anti-colonial movements was an instrument to enhance revolutionary-ideological credentials, visibility, and corresponding international range (437). Mao’s thinking interwove international with domestic factors, and ideological factors with power politics more closely than Eisenman’s main assumption concedes. Indeed, for Mao, “African independence movements were extensions of China´s own revolution” (438, 445). This ideological understanding played an important role in Beijing´s relations with Africa and the USSR beyond desires for international recognition or domestic victories. All in all, neither Eisenman’s material nor his analysis decisively substantiates the clear ranking of the different ingredients of Mao’s Africa policy.

Nevertheless, the article provides interesting details and important insights into Beijing’s concrete efforts and activities in times of global Cold War, decolonization, and post-colonial processes in Africa. Eisenman’s descriptions of the protracted buildup of relevant international organizational structures in the 1950s aptly reveal the corresponding problems of international newcomers. Equally, the brief outline of the calculated utilization of Chinese Muslims of Beijing’s strategies sheds light on the important and obviously under-researched dimensions of religion and minorities in Chinese foreign policy during the Mao era (432, 436, 442). Likewise, China´s concrete support for guerrilla movements in Africa (and worldwide) presents important insights into the contradictions and instruments of Mao´s foreign policy in the Sino-Soviet-African triangle (437-438, 441, 444).

Finally, the findings raise interesting questions concerning international relations and the dynamics of successful revolutions and their new emerging states (443). Cultural Revolution measures and their immediate consequences on Beijing´s international relations remind the reader of Stalinist mechanisms in the USSR during the second half of the 1930s (440-441). In the 1950s, Beijing as well as Moscow had to install new institutions for their states’ international relations with Africa and had to struggle against the well-established positions of more traditional international players. In general, such findings once again question the compatibility of consequent domestic radicalization and desired international recognition and underline the importance of the unintended consequences of corresponding decisions (442). Interactions between internal and external challenges, chances, or opportunities cast doubt on revolutionary leaders’ competence and power to determine and pursue adequate integrated revolutionary state strategies. A comparative approach to the history of socialist experiences in and with the Third World is still missing. By addressing several important aspects and dimensions of the Chinese example, Eisenman’s work serve as additional stimulus for corresponding endeavors. Nevertheless, a more comprehensive discussion will find more nuanced and more differentiated assessments of socialist states’ impulses and visions.


Dr. Andreas Hilger, who is Deputy Director German Historical Institute Moscow, works on international history since 1945 and on the history of peacekeeping operations during and after the Cold War. His publications include Sowjetisch-indische Beziehungen 1941-1966. Imperiale Agenda und nationale Identität in der Ära von Dekolonisierung und Kaltem Krieg (Soviet-Indian relations 1941-1966. Imperial agenda and national identity in times of decolonization and Cold war (Cologne: Böhlau, 2018); with Corinna Unger, eds., India in the world since 1947. National and Transnational Perspectives (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2012); “Communism, decolonization, and the Third World,” in: Norman Naimark, Silvio Pons, and Sophie Quinn-Judge (eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism, Vol. 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2017): 317-340.

© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] See Gregg A. Brazinsky, Winning the Third World. Sino-American rivalry during the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017); Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War. The Sino-Soviet competition for the Third World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[2] Exemplarily, Lorenz M. Lüthi, The Sino-Soviet split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Sergej Radchenko, Two Suns in the Heaven: the Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-1967 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2009).

[3] With regard to the Bandung-chapter, see, for example, Chen Jian´s relevant contributions concerning the “Bandung spirit,” Chen Jian, “Bridging Revolution and Decolonization. The ‘Bandung’ Discourse in China’s early Cold War Experience,” in Christopher E. Goscha and Christian F. Ostermann (eds.), Connecting Histories: Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, 1945-1962 (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, 2009), 137-171. Roderic MacFarquhar’ The Origins of the Cultural Revolution, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974-1997) is still instructive.