In the 1960s, under Chairman Mao, China placed great emphasis on the newly independent countries in Africa.
It stressed technological aid, but distinguished itself from both the Western countries and the Soviet Union by the fact that Chinese laborers and aid officials lived under the same conditions as their African hosts. Additionally, the Chinese attempts to woo the new African countries stressed the solidarity of the developing world, a solidarity that also invoked racial anti-white undertones. This was an attempt to compensate for the fact that in material terms China could not compete with the United States or the Soviet Union.
It is a different China today and the Chinese don't work side by side anymore, but employ many Africans. The new relationship is marked by the 5th ministerial conference of the forum on China-Africa cooperation (FOCAC). We are dealing with bilateral trade of 166.3 billion, an impressive growth of 83% since 2009. China is Africa's largest trading partner.
China is emphasizing the value of free trade to the African countries. China, like the United States in the previous century, has become an ardent advocate of free trade because China believes, like the United States once did, that it can outstrip all her competitors.
The African countries see free trade as double edged. They would like free trade in order to penetrate the European markets with their agricultural produce, side-stepping the subsidies that the European Union lavishes on European agriculture and the duties on imports from outside the EU.
On the other hand. when it comes to industrial products, the Africans are wary that the Chinese are strangling local industry and reducing the continent to a supplier of raw materials - or in other words, reviving colonialism.
The People's Daily, the organ of the Chinese Communist Party, bristled against these charges, claiming that the relationship between China and Africa "is based on equality and mutual benefit". However, the author of the article seems to prove the point in the following paragraph.
"For China, Africa's exports of crude oil, minerals, steel and agricultural products have played an active role in lifting the Chinese people's livelihood. Meanwhile, the continent also serves as an indispensable market with great potential for Chinese products. With the exception of steel we are dealing with primary products on the African side and it's not certain how much steel China actually imports from Africa. China has financed African infrastructure projects, but as in Latin America, this can be viewed as enlightened self-interest because it makes Chinese access to natural resources easier".
Liu Guijin, former Chinese ambassador to South Africa and Zimbabwe, emphasized one of China's major attractions to African leaders: "We are not applying pressure or sanctions or giving out orders. The priority should be to show respect."