Tanzania – The African Country Where Mao’s Portrait Hangs In A Railway Station


Mbeya railway station (photo by Egbert via Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years there has been much talk of China‘s growing presence in Africa, with some going so far as to describe it as a new form of colonialism. In a 2016 article three South African scholars explained that China has emerged as a prominent foreign aid donor in Africa, directly competing on the arena with OECD countries.

However, Chinese aid and investment in Africa is not an entirely new phenomenon. In fact, Beijing’s attempts to gain political and economic leverage on the continent date back to the 1960s.

On May 7 Chinese media published an article by Song Tao, a member of a Chinese medical team in Tanzania. The author recounted his journey on the Tanzania Zambia Railway (TAZARA), the first aid development project financed by Beijing in East Africa.

Ever since the Mao era the TAZARA has been portrayed by China as a symbol of successful co-operation with African countries. However, the massive infrastructure project also shows the limits and the political ramifications of China’s financial assistance on the continent.

A Chinese Railroad in Africa

Song Tao’s journey started in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, and ended in Mbeya, a city of about 300,000 people near the border with Zambia. His travelogue focuses specifically on traces of Sino-Tanzanian co-operation. His pictures show Chinese-made railway tracks, train carriages, Mandarin-written banners hanging inside stations, and local people’s reverence for China.

“Some of the houses along the railway still have cogon grass roofs or are made out of galvanized iron sheets,” writes the author. “In these areas there are lots of children walking around. When the train passes by and they see me taking pictures, they ran and chant: ‘China, China!’, until they disappear in the distance.”

On arriving at Mbeya railway station, the author marvels at what was built 40 years ago by the Chinese, when China was itself a poor country. Pieces of furniture and facilities such as telephones, clocks and ashtrays proudly bear ‘Made in China’ labels written in Chinese characters. Song writes:

In the 1970s, under extremely difficult logistic and technical conditions, Chinese people travelled to the distant African continent and built such high quality architecture. This can be said to be a miracle. It’s not surprising that the Tanzanian railway astonished the world … One thing made my eyes gleam: on the wall of an office in the Mbeya railway station there hung not only pictures of Chinese, Tanzanian and Zambian leaders, but also a portrait of Chairman Mao. One cannot help feel great veneration!

After his journey the author concludes:

I firmly believe that upon the solid basis built by previous generations the new generations will by their relentless efforts consolidate and further Sino-African relations!

Song Tao’s propaganda piece, with its triumphant tone and its conscious hushing up of the dark side of Chinese investment, reflects Beijing’s surprisingly long-term and sustained strategy on the continent. In this respect, Tanzania is a fascinating example of how the CCP cultivates its relationship with African countries.

Sino-Tanzanian Relations

In 2014 Tanzania received $4 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, an increase of about 100% compared with the previous year. Tanzania amounted to 16.3% of China’s total FDI in Africa. Trade between the two countries has been steadily growing over the past two decades. China is Tanzania’s third export partner after India and South Africa and its second import partner after India.

In 2014 Tanzania imported $2 billion worth of goods from China and exported a total of $684 million. Tanzania’s export goods mostly consist of oil seeds, precious metal ore, copper ore and refined copper.

As mentioned earlier, Sino-Tanzanian relations are not a recent phenomenon, but are part of Beijing’s long-term strategy. In the 1960s China was looking for new allies and access to important raw materials. Furthermore, it wanted to counterbalance the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union in Africa.

Upon declaring its independence in 1961, Tanganyika immediately recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC). China dispatched Xinhua representative Gao Liang and later sent ambassador He Ying to Dar es Salaam. The CCP government cultivated a warm relationship with Tanganyika’s Prime Minister Julius Nyerere, who opposed Western presence in Africa and supported African liberation movements against colonialism.

Initially Nyerere feared that Beijing and Moscow were promoting a Communist revolution in neighbouring Zanzibar, where the Sultan was overthrown in January 1963 by left-wing groups. China established diplomatic relations with the newly-founded People’s Republic of Zanzibar in December 1963 and developed ties with Nyerere’s political rivals such as Sheikh Mohammed Abdul Rahman. In order to prevent the destabilization of the region, Nyerere proposed a political union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Russia opposed the plan. China, however, supported it. This was a consequential strategic move on the part of Beijing.

Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged on April 26, 1964, forming the United Republic of Tanzania. China now reaped the reward of its policy. Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, fostered relations with Beijing and even publicly advocated socialism. Beijing regarded Nyerere as its major ally in the country and dropped its support for his opponents.

In 1964 Zanzibar’s vice president Rashidi Kawawa visited Beijing and returned with a $42 million loan and a $3 million grant. This was the beginning of China’s financial aid, technical and military assistance to Tanzania (see Shinn / Eisenman 2012, p. 260).

As a consequence, Western influence in Tanzania declined in the course of the 1960s. In 1964 Zanzibar removed an American satellite station and expelled US diplomats. In 1964 it broke off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom over the issue of Rhodesia. Tanzania was also opposed to US intervention in Vietnam. In 1965 Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai visited Tanzania, and the same year Nyerere travelled to China. The result of closer Sino-Tanzanian ties was the signing of a friendship treaty and various co-operation agreements (ibid., p. 259; and Copper 2016, p. 10).

By the mid-1960s Tanzania had already become the largest recipient of China’s aid in sub-Saharan Africa. Trade between the two countries increased tenfold from 1964 to 1966 (Copper 2016, p. 11). China also began supplying Tanzania with military aid and participated in key infrastructure projects.

China used Tanzania as a base for supporting liberation movements against Western powers in Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Mozambique. China even built a radio transmitter in Tanzania from which rebel groups could broadcast to their home countries (Shinn / Eisenman 2012, p. 260).

Tanzania was interested in helping neighbouring Zambia export its copper via Dar es Salaam, but the two countries lacked an efficient transport network. In the 1950s Britain had considered building a railroad in the region but had abandoned the project. In 1963, Zambia and Tanzania submitted a proposal to the World Bank for investment in a railway, but their plan was rejected because it was considered not economically sound. The two governments later put forward their proposals to the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, the Soviet Union and the African Development Bank, all of which turned down their project (Copper 2016, p. 16).

The only country that showed interest in financing the railroad was China. Beijing saw an economic and political opportunity that it wanted to seize. First, China could use the infrastructure to import copper and export manufactured goods to Africa. Second, it could turn Tanzania into a regional economic hub rivalling Kenya, which the CCP government considered pro-Western. Third, China could portray itself as a champion of the African cause, thus winning over precious allies on the international stage.

During Nyerere’s visit to Beijing in 1965 China signalled its willingness to finance the railway project. In 1967 China, Zambia and Tanzania signed an agreement for a long-term, interest-free loan totalling $401 million. China provided the technical expertise as well as thousands of workers for the project (Shinn / Eisenman 2012, p. 261; Copper 2016, p. 16).

By late 1971 the Chinese had laid 313 miles of tracks that became operational as early as 1973, when Zambia’s copper began to be transported by train to the port of Dar es Salaam. The TAZARA was completed in 1976 ahead of schedule. It had a length of 1,162 miles, longer than the railway linking London and Moscow. Over 25,000 Chinese and 50,000 Africans worked on the project (Copper 2016, p. 17).

From a political point of view China achieved its goal. It consolidated its presence in East Africa, outshone Russia as the champion and best friend of the African people, and showed to the world that it was capable and willing to invest in long-term infrastructure projects in Africa which Western countries dismissed as unfeasible. Nyerere praised China’s aid efforts, especially the fact that Chinese aid came without any political strings attached, unlike Western loans and investments (Copper, p. 12).

China also secured Tanzania’s support on the world stage. Ever since the mid-1960s, Tanzania has been one of China’s most loyal allies, endorsing Beijing’s key foreign policy doctrines. For instance, in the early 1970s Tanzania lobbied African countries to actively support Beijing’s efforts to be admitted to the United Nations as the representative of China, a seat that was held by the Taipei-based Republic of China government. At the 26th General Assembly of the UN in 1971, Tanzania sponsored the resolution supporting “the restoration of the lawful rights of the People’s Republic of China.”

On January 9, 2017, Tanzanian Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa met in Dar es Salaam with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. He reaffirmed that the Tanzanian side “always firmly adheres to the one-China policy and will continue to offer China strong support on all issues concerning China’s core interests.”

However, China’s influence in Tanzania is not without controversies and failures. Though the TAZARA was a propaganda success, it has not been economically viable. As of 2017 the TAZARA has an estimated debt burden of $700 million, which include delayed payments to suppliers and contractors, unpaid pensions and outstanding salaries.

The railway suffers from mismanagement, delays and poor maintenance. Hundreds of its train coaches are non-operational. The TAZARA would need a $200 million investment in new rolling stock and track repairs to  become fully functional. According to the Zambian government $1.2 billion would be needed over a five year period to improve the railway so as to make it profitable.

In the 1970s and 1980s an annual average of one million tonnes of goods used to be transported on the railroad. Between 2014 and 2016 the amount fell to just about 7,800 tonnes per year. Chinese investors seem the most likely candidates for restructuring the railway, but they have demanded that all debts be cleared before they commit themselves to the project.

Although Tanzania welcomes Chinese investments, it has also become increasingly aware of trade asymmetries with the Asian giant. Massive trade deficits resulted in complaints by some Tanzanians about the growing number of cheap Chinese imports and counterfeit products. China has vowed to reduce trade imbalance, so far without success. According to professor Michael F. Lofchie, China’s economic relationship with Tanzania is neo-colonial:

To provide for its expanding industrial economy, China needs vast amounts of energy and raw materials. To obtain these, China enters into long-term trade agreements with numerous countries around the world, many of which are in sub-Saharan Africa. These trade agreements follow a standard template: they call for the host country to supply China on a longterm basis with primary commodities such as oil or coal, metal ores, and timber or agricultural commodities such as cotton. As part of the agreement, China commits itself to invest, sometimes heavily, in the development or rehabilitation of the productive capacity for these goods and the infrastructure improvements necessary to export them. To redirect some of China’s funds back to China, the African country agrees to import Chinese manufactured goods (Lofchie 2014, p. 223). 

On the other hand, Lofchie points out that China has offered African countries more prospects for development than Western donors or investors. Chinese loans have less strict conditions and often lower interest rates than Western loans. Chinese aid and trade comes with no political requirements except for the support of Chinese ‘core interests’ such as the Taiwan issue, which usually don’t affects African countries directly.

China has also been willing to forgive loans to allow African countries to invest elsewhere in their economies. For example, in 2011 Chinese Vice-Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan signed an agreement with government officials from Zambia and Tanzania to forgive 50% of the debt to build and operate the TAZARA.

Another important aspect of Chinese activities in Africa is that Beijing invests in long-term infrastructure projects which other countries consider too costly or unprofitable. China has not only built hydroelectric dams, railroads, pipelines and port facilities, but also ‘goodwill’ projects such as stadiums, presidential residences, government office buildings and hospitals. Chinese investments further generate local employment, though perhaps not as much as African countries would like. Lastly, Beijing offers scholarships and exchange programmes for African students and professionals (ibid., p. 224).

Although post-Mao reforms have dramatically changed China’s economy, it appears that Beijing’s strategy in Africa follows a patterns already established in the 1960s and 70s. On the one hand, China portrays itself as an alternative to Western exploitation and political hegemony. On the other hand, it strives to promote, at least on paper, a mutually beneficial partnership which is made visible by ambitious infrastructure projects.

In this respect, the Belt and Road Initiative launched by Xi Jinping seems to consolidate and advance Beijing’s foreign policy principles, adapting them to the new circumstances. Lu Youqing, ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Tanzania, explained to his Tanzanian audience why African countries should embrace co-operation with China in the following terms:

[The Belt and Road Initiative] advocates cooperation based on equality. It upholds the principle of achieving shared growth through discussion and collaboration. All interests are well catered for. There is no hegemonic agenda or political conditions attached, granting full freedom of development to all participants.

The old international political and economic order was set up by western powers based on their financial, technological and rule advantages. The old order limits the growth of developing countries and widens the gap between the South and North. The participants of the Belt and Road Initiative are mostly developing or least developed countries. Through this initiative, China will share with them the dividend of its development and reform, as well as its experiences and lessons learned in growth.

Chinese investment has so far failed to generate growth and rising living standards for the majority of Africans. However, as long as Beijing can capitalize on Western failures and on its own economic success, its influence in Africa is likely to grow.

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