Thứ Sáu, 30 tháng 8, 2013

88. China’s Foreign Policy towards Africa

Author: Chenchen Wu (the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University)

As global demand for energy increases, major players like the United States, the European Union, and Japan are facing competition from a new source as China struggles to meet its need for long-term energy supply. China-Africa cooperation has particularly been put in the spotlight. Some international observers accuse Chinese foreign policy towards African countries of undermining international efforts to increase transparency and good governance. Others describe a policy of ‘an aid for oil strategy’ or even a ‘neo-colonial policy’. On the African side, some blame on Chinese enterprises of underbidding local firms, especially in the textile industry, or of failing to hire Africans. In Beijing, the Chinese government insists on its ‘non-interference’ policy and refuses to link business with the human rights issue. The Beijing Summit in 2006 accelerated the interaction between China and Africa even further, as the two sides decided to accelerate cooperation, especially in joint resources exploration and exploitation. 

This research paper, divided in two parts, aims to provide insights into the status of the Sino-Africa relationship and gives a relatively objective conclusion. Part one considers the policy level, examining the past relationship from the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ in the Bandung Conference in 1955, to ‘Four Principles of Chinese Cooperation with Africa’ in 1982, to ‘a New Strategic Partnership’ in 2006. This concludes that China’s policy towards African has moved away from unconditional assistance so that ‘mutual-benefits’ has become the priority. Part two examines the motivation level. Here I argue that China’s policy to Africa is not only driven by oil and other resource needs, but also the strategic importance of the African continent, which lies in three considerations, with commercial factors and diplomatic issues standing alongside the resource imperative. Some African countries like Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, have gradually become critical oil-exporters for China as extreme instability of the Mid-East supply has increased. In particular, since China and African countries are still developing areas, political cooperation in international affairs is necessary as well as important to secure their shared interests. Finally, I conclude that the cooperation between China and African countries is on the basis of complementary trade, mutual-respect, and a concern for increased influence for the developing world in international affairs, including the global political economy. Nevertheless, as a ‘responsible and rising power’, which is what China claims to be, China should take more actions in certain scenarios to stand with, and eventually contribute to the leadership of the international community.


·                     Part I the Policy level

This section debates the evolution of China’s African policy from the founding of New China to the contemporary era, by means of three turning points: in 1955, 1982, and 2006.

i) ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ in the Bandung Conference in 1955

China’s relation with Africa may be traced back to six centuries ago.  In 1415, Chinese explorers visited the East African coast and brought shiploads of Chinese commodities. Kenya provided many local gifts as return. But the interaction in the modern time started from the Bandung Conference held in the year 1955, which was widely regarded as a seminal event in Sino-African history. The conference was expected to enhance economic and cultural cooperation of the two continents and promoted the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggle. Of the 29 states that participated in the conference, six were African, such as Egypt, Libya and so on. The Former Premier, Zhou Enlai, attended the conference and presented the Five Principles of ‘Peaceful Coexistence’, which covered mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence (Looy, 2006:2). The achievement of great diplomatic success followed the conference increased Chinese interests in the continent.[1] In 1963, Premier Zhou embarked on his first ten-nation tour of Africa to promote the second Asia-African conference. Though few agreed on the necessity for the next meeting, Premier Zhou put forwards a particular ‘Eight-Principles’ that were designed to guide China’s engagement to African countries.[2]These principles clearly clarified the Chinese intention to assist African countries by the policy of economic and technical aid. Moving into 1970s, China significantly expanded aid projects in Africa, illustrated in the number of recipient countries. (See table 1). Furthermore, the principles showed that Chinese government provided the assistances to the African countries without asking for any return, at least from an economic perspective. Some loans did not require repayment if the recipients could not afford this. However, for China’s decision-makers, the aid diplomacy had both political and ideological objectives. On the ideological level, China seemed to support any revolutionary movement against imperialism, including African revolutions. On the political level, the primary motivation was to compete with Taiwan and then get African to support the PRC in international recognition, as well as to compete with the Soviet Union in the African sphere.

·                     ii) Four Principles of Chinese Cooperation with Africa’ in 1982

After the most important political goal, the UN seat, was achieved in 1971, a mutual diplomatic recognition between China and America was established in 1979. The less intensive international environment was reflected in China’s foreign policy so that economic growth and domestic reforms instead of revolutionary goals dominated the policy agenda. The 12th Communist Party Committee National Assembly in 1982 sent two messages that had implications for China’s African policy: China would concentrate on domestic economic development; China would pursue its independent foreign policy characterised with ‘mutual benefits’ in real meaning (Li, 2007:72).  On the 1982 trip to the African continent, in accordance with these changes, the Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang offered a wholly new ‘Four Principles on Sino-African Economic and Technical Cooperation’, which stressed equality and mutual benefits, practical result, diversity in forms and common development.[3] (Onderco, 2007: 5). If comparing the Four Principles of the 1980s to the Eight Principles in the 1960s, a remarkable difference was that China asked for mutual promotion of the two economies, as showed in principle 2 and 4. Indeed, economic assistance between the poor countries could not be sustained in the long term if it was only limited to a one-way flow. By that time, China was no longer interested in sustaining its position as an influential player on the continent, but was eager to develop own economic capability. In other words, Africa lost its importance in Chinese eyes and was marginalized as China’s focus shifted to its own modernisation. In a period when China itself depended on foreign funds, there was little that China could do for Africa.

iii)  ‘A New Strategic Partnership’ in 2006

The lull in relations lasted until the Tiananmen turmoil in 1989. Though China intended to focus its diplomacy with the developed countries, it was confronted with harsh condemnation on human rights and punishment exemplified by political isolation and economic sanctions. These made China aware of the insurmountable value divergence between itself and the West. The only strategy seemed to be to look back, and to strengthen ties with the developing world as a defensive mechanism. This meant a reappraisal of the role of the third world countries, including the ASEAN countries and African countries, which expressed their understanding towards Beijing’s action in handling this internal problem. As part of an effort seeking political assistance, the Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen visited 14 African countries during 1989 and 1992. The tour highlighted Beijing’s intention in seeking potential political supports from the African side. During his 1996 national visit, President Jiang Zemin proposed building a long-term and stable Sino-African relationship of all-round cooperation and friendship geared towards the 21st century (China-Africa Friendship and Cooperation in Five Decades, 2000). 

In 2006, Beijing government particularly released an important white paper, China’s African Policy, to clarify Africa’s strategic importance to China. It was ‘the first of its kind in China’s diplomatic history with Africa’, which embodied Chinese long-term plan of enhancing all-rounds cooperation with Africa (Li, 2007: 69). Through it, Beijing presents the world that the objective of China’s African policy is to ‘establish and develop a new type of strategic partnership with Africa’ on the basis of advancing the fundamental interests of both sides. The white paper captures the Beijing government’s attempt to construct a strategic relationship with the continent. What Beijing addresses repeatedly is mutual-benefit under the framework of the strategic partnership. Apparently, the benefit here does not just purely refer to the political gains in 1955-1978, or the economic interests during 1978-1989. Instead, it established strategic goals through pragmatic pursuits, including political cooperation, economic interactions, and cultural exchange and so on, as showed in the white paper.

Part II Motivation level

In the context of China’s foreign policy, there are three dominating objectives: national unification, the promotion of world peace and an impartial world order, and the sustainability of economic development (Payne & Veney, 1998:2). Others note that China’s development strategy demands resource supplies and exports markets; that its diplomacy requires support in the international organizations and through persuasion it seeks allies to advance Chinese interests (Naidu & Davies, 2006: 70). In other words, the People’s Republic of China is not interested in exporting communist ideology; it is economic and political influences that occupy Chinese attention. China’s foreign policy towards Africa is not exception to this.

·                     i) Resources concerns

When many criticise ‘China’s colonial behaviour in Africa’, African countries collectively have become an important trade partner, especially a reliable oil exporter for China. Since the Asian Pacific area fails to provide abundant energy resources to fuel Chinese economic growth, particularly after the accession of the World Trade Organization, and the Iraqi War has further shaken the already instable supply from the Middle-East region, China’s energy concern has switched to African continent. The African countries figures on the agenda of Chinese oil diplomacy due to several factors. Unlike the Middle East region, the external power influences are less evident in the continent and African oil industries are open to foreign investment.  Furthermore, African oil has the characteristic of low-sulphur content, which is good for environmental protection; and its location in West Africa makes for easy processing by Chinese refineries (Naidu & Davies, 2006:73). Moreover, the historic links to liberation movements, the identity of the developing countries, the shared understanding of human rights question, along with the partnership based on non-interference policy have pushed the bilateral cooperation forwards smoothly. 

With the political supports of their governments, the three largest national oil companies in China, China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (Sinopec), China National Petroleum Cooperation (CNPC) and China National Offshore Oil Cooperation (CNOOC) have either operated new exploration deals with the oil exporting countries, or have taken over the stakes in already-established African oil companies. (See table 2). Other oil companies, like the Zhongyuan Oil Company, PetroChina also strive to invest in the African oil sector. During the process, China’s commercial banks sometimes act as credits-providers to ensure the commercial activity. For instance, in 2005, China’s Export and Import bank granted a 1 billion USD oil-backed loan to Angola, which was increased to 3 billion USD in 2006 for upgrading of local infrastructure. The increasing fund enabled Sinopec to secure concessions for the oil exploration in the coming years (Naidu & Davies, 2006:76). Nowadays, African countries have supplied approximately one third of China’s oil imports, increased from 11 percent in the year 1995, competing with the Middle East Region (See table 3). Angola, the second-largest oil-producing country in the continent, has exceeded the Saudi Arabia to become the top oil supplier, providing 17.46 percent of China’s oil imports. (Zhao, 2007: 26, cited from U.S. Energy Administration; Zhao Daojiong, 2006, China’s Oil Interests in Africa: International Political Problems).

It is apparent that China’s oil policy achieves a remarkable success in the continent. Consequently, some scholars begin to purely link China’s African policy with oil or energy, whereas others argue that China goes to Africa for grabbing raw materials to gear its impressive economic growth. Although the two theories could not portray the full picture of China’s African policy, the latter argument seems more pragmatic. Chinese manufacturing sector has created massive demand for cooper, aluminium, nickel, iron ore, oil and so on. Beside energy, China’s importing list in Africa is long. China not only imports oil from Nigeria, Sudan, Angola, but also buys iron ore and platinum from South Africa, timber from Cameroon, Congo and Gabon. China is in fact the world’s largest leading importer of crude oil, iron ore, manganese, plastic materials, metal ores, oil seeds, textile fibres, and pulp and paper; the second largest importer of cooper, which is needed by China’s electricity industry; the importer of 40 percent of world soy bean, and the consumer of 50 percent of world wood. Importantly, the demands for these commodities will continue in the foreseeable future, according to Deutsche Bank Research Report. (See table 4).  As long as China continues to demand the resource inputs, the interest in African continent will not wane as many African countries have become major resource providers for China(Data from Deutsche Bank Research Report, 2006). Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the African continent has become a major contributor to China’s resource imports basement.

ii) Commercial considerations

Certainly, of the immediate importance to China are Africa’s abundant resources. China needs every primary product, in many people’s eyes. However, it is insufficient to argue that China treats Africa purely as a resource base. It can be argued that China’s engagement with Africa in the new century is characterised not only by a need for economic resources, but more critically, by the commercial deals and political muscles. In the released white paper, economic interactions through preferential loans, financial cooperation, agricultural communication, and investment in African infrastructure are included and given high weight. In the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Action Plan (2007-2009), beyond cooperation in resources, bilateral ties will involve not only agriculture, trade, investment, but also infrastructure, science and technology.  On the national visit of President Hu Jintao to Africa, commercial deals include automotive works in Namibia, opening fruit market to South Africa, expanding investments in infrastructure, telecommunication, tourism in Seychelles, and increasing the number of duty-free commodities in Mozambique (Africa-China: Hu’s Tour, 2007).
As a matter of fact, China has been one of the three largest trade partners with Africa, following America and France. The bilateral trade is growing annually and rapidly, from 10 billion USD in 2000 to 733.11 billion USD in 2007. (See table 5). China has acknowledged the export and investment potential in the continent. With 900 million potential customers, the African continent is a rather suitable market for Chinese cheap but good quality commodities, such as textiles and manufactured goods. The exports to Africa went up from 2.3 percent of the total exports in the year 2001 to 3.1 percent in the year 2007. (See table 6). The exports are mainly household utensils, mechanical and electric products, textiles and clothes (Africa-China: Beijing Summit, 2006). Those countries with large populations are the focusing markets, such as South Africa, Nigeria, and Algeria. As Africa is not on the top 10 lists of China’s trade partner yet, and the trade with Africa is only a tiny part of China’s foreign trade so that the potential for both is massive.

In terms of investment, from 2003 to 2006, China’s outward investment to Africa had risen from 74.81 billion USD to 519.86 billion USD. It only took 2.9 percent of total Chinese overseas investment, although it covered 81 percent of African countries (2006 Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment). China has been investing in textile industries in the form of joint venture with African enterprises in order to take advantage of the United States’ African Growth and Opportunity Act and the European Union’s Cotonou Agreement that is replaced by the Economic Partnership Agreement, which may provide preferential clauses for textile and apparel goods of eligible African countries into the American and European markets. In addition, Chinese construction firms have been bidding for the construction deals in the continent. The China Road and Bridge Corporation has set up the regional headquarter in the Capital of Kenya and has been rebuilding the roads destroyed in Civil War in Angola (Meidan, 2006:79). Other commercial plans include that, a first group of overseas economic trade and cooperation in which three countries of the group come from Africa: Nigeria, Mauritius and Zambia, and a China-African Development Fund to provide start-up capital to Chinese companied investing in Africa (World Investment Report 2007). Thus resource import sector is only one part of an expanding trade and investment relationship between China and Africa.

·                     iii) Political and diplomatic considerations

Some analyses suggest that the China’s African policy has other intentions, such as reforming the global order and advance resistance to hegemony, or to contain Taiwan. (Taylor, 2006, 67-69). Though it is uncertain whether China’s intention is to change or sustain the present global order, we can agree that beside commercial factors, China’s African policy is also driven in a large part by political motivations, not least the Taiwan issue and the pursuit of political backing in the international society to promote the political environment for China’s strategic goals. Africa has been a reliable and traditional ally to China, if ignoring the short-term antipathy to China’s revolutionary ambitions in the 1960s. Without the supports of the African group, China would not be able to take over Taiwan’s seat successfully in the United Nations, and be recognized by the international community. Nowadays, in such an international system where civilization and hegemony have coexistence, political cooperation in international community is a key for those countries that have similar background and share similar interests.  So far China has more than once vetoed unfavourable resolutions to certain African countries in the UN, while the African Union also defends China against the human rights charge and Taiwan’s independence movement.

But in my theory, the core of the bilateral political exchange is not to regain Taiwan, but a common agenda in seeking the justice of world order and resisting hegemony. Being a historic event in the bilateral diplomacy, the 1955 Bandung Conference itself was expected to enhance cooperation of the two continents to promote the anti-imperialist struggle. The First China-Africa Forum in 2000 proposed the construction of an international political and economic order. In the 2003 China-Africa Forum, Premier Wen pointed out that ‘the hegemony is raising its ugly head’, so that the collective power of the developing countries is beyond necessity to secure their own interests in international affairs. The white paper of China’s African policy in 2006 indicates that ‘China will continue to strengthen solidarity and cooperation with African countries on the international arena, conduct regular exchange of views, coordinate positions on the major international and regional issues and stand for mutual support on major issues concerning state sovereignty, territorial integrity, national dignity and human right.’(China’s African policy, 2006). In the same year, at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summit and Third Ministerial Conference, President Hu Jintao noted that China will cooperate with Africa to promote balanced and harmonious global development, to strengthen cooperation in international affairs.(Hu’s speech at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summit, 2006). It is without any doubt that the regular forum meeting and frequent high-level visits were intended not just to promote bilateral economic ties, but more importantly, to build a steadfast political union between the two.  

Part III Conclusion

China’s phenomenal economic growth is driving the impressive trade, diplomatic, and aid relations with Africa, and the significant engagement causes mixed reactions in the Western media and diplomacy, which wonder about the nature of the China’s interests in the continent. If looking inside the story, we can see that, in the past, the bilateral relationships were shaped by the China’s anti- hegemony strategy, combined with the competition with Taiwan. Today, pragmatic motives based mainly on national interests have replaced ideology to guide the Sino-African ties.  From the economic perspective, China and Africa have complementary economic and commercial needs. Africa is a continent with rich-resources but poor manufacturing base and capital shortage. They rely on imports, including in basic goods. In comparison, China has sufficient capital, a well-established manufacturing export base, but they depend on external resource suppliers. The cooperation between the two is in accordance with the economic theory of comparative advantages, and certainly both benefit from it. From the diplomatic perspective, China perceives Africa as an important partner for coordination in the process of international rules formulation. China’s claim of the identity of a developing country means that it is viewed by the African countries as a reliable spokesman and champion to ensure the shared interests in international organizations like the UN.  

Moving to the strategies that China applies to the African case, there are three major policies that help to win the favour of the majority of countries: the policy of mutual respect without asking any political concessions of the counterparts; symbolic diplomacy, frequent high-level visits shows the world how important the continent means to China, which indirectly raises the political value of Africa; and impressively, economic diplomacy. Chinese investments are always accompanied by related infrastructure contracts, debt relief, assistance in public health and agriculture, offering zero-tariff treatment for some African exports to China, and building schools. All these are warmly welcomed by the governments and the ordinary people. ‘China has pledged to set up three to five special economic zones, and institute a $5 billion development fund to encourage Chinese investments in Africa. Moreover, 100 new schools will be built, 16,000 professionals will be trained.’(Meidan, 2006:70).  

However, my reservation concerns the non-inference policy, which has almost become the label of Chinese foreign policy. The core of the Five Principle of Coexistence, being the foundation of China’s diplomacy, is mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Although to urge the counterpart to change would not be at the cost of the commercial benefits and bilateral friendships. By offering alternative channel of economic and diplomacy, China’s participation does weaken the leverage of others trying to promote greater respect for human rights. Explanations, such that China itself has human rights problems so that China has no right to accuse other countries, or that every country has different understanding over human rights, could not satisfy the Western public. Conversely, as China’s influence in the international community increases, it is inappropriate to continue the non-interference policy, and more importantly, this is not accordance to the image of ‘a responsible state’ that China wants to shape. Therefore, Chinese authority may have to take some actions to win the acceptance of the international community in some scenarios.

Table 1 only 13 African countries receiving Chinese aid in the 1960s

Date of first aid agreement
Amount (US$ million)

30 countries receiving Chinese aid in the 1970s

Date of first aid agreement
Amount (US$ million)
Sierra Leone
Burkina Faso
The Gambia
Sao Tme-Prcp
Cape Verde
(Sources from Brautigam Deborah, 1998, Chinese Aid and African Development, P45)
Table 2: some commercial deals of China’s three largest oil companies in Africa

Since 1996, CNPC has controlled a 40% stake in the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company in Sudan; in 2003, CNPC purchased oil refineries in Algeria for 350 million USD and signed an exploration deal fro oil in two blocks; in 2004, CNPC invested 1 million USD in an oil and gas exploration project in Mauritania; in 2006, CNPC and Sinopec teamed up to exploit newly discovered drilling rights to an oilfield in Sudan in a deal worth about 600 million USD.

In 2002, Sinopec signed a contract for 525 million USD to develop oil field in Algeria; in 2004, Sinopec signed a technical evaluation deal for three onshore oilfields in Gabon to supply China with crude oil; in 2005, Sinopec purchased a 27% stake in an oil field off the coast in Nigeria; in 2006, Sinopec entered into a joint venture partnership with a local oil company to build an oil refinery in Angola; in 2006, Sinopec has been constructing a 1,500km pipeline to Port Sudan.

In 2005, CNOOC paid 2.3 billion dollar for a stake in the Akpo offshore oil and gas field in Nigeria; In 2006, CNOOC signed a production-sharing contract in Equatorial Guinea; and bought a 45% stake in a Nigeria oil and gas field for 2.3 billion USD; also in 2006, CNOOC was allowed to explore in six blocks covering 44500 sq miles in Kenya;
(Sources: Naidu & Davies, ‘China Fuels its Future with Africa’s Riches’; Scott-Meuser, ‘Fuelling Development: China and Africa’; Meidan Michal, China’s Africa Policy: Business Now, Politics Later)

Table 3 China’s imported crude oil by region 1995-2006(%)

Middle East

(Sources: Lai, 2007, ‘China’s Oil Diplomacy: Is It a Global Security Threat?’, P522, cited from Yearbook of China’s Economic Foreign Relations and Trade, 2002, 2003; Zhao, 2007, China-US Oil Rivalry in Africa.)

Table 4    Projections for China’s Commodity Import Demand

Latest Demand
Predicted Demand in 2020
Iron ore
  m tons
  m tons
  m tons
  m tons
  m tons
  m tons
  m tons
  m cubic
(Sources: Deutsche Bank Research Report)

Table 5 China’s trade volume with the world and with the Africa (billion USD)


Total trade volume

Trade with Africa


(Source: Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China)

Table 6 China’s exports to the world and to the Africa (billion USD)

Exports volume to Africa
Total Exports
(Source: Ministry of Commerce of the People’s Republic of China,
2006 Statistical Bulletin of China’s Outward Foreign Direct Investment)


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[1] Followed the conference, political interactions were built between China and some African countries, including Egypt, Sudan, and Tunisia at the end of 1950s, Mali, Ghana, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya at the beginning of 1960s.
[2] The eight are: 1. Chinese government have persistently been providing assistance to foreign countries according to the principles of equality and mutual benefit, never regard the assistance as the grant by one sided……. 2. While providing foreign aid, Chinese government strictly respects the sovereignty of recipient countries, no strings attached and no privilege required. 3. in order to relief the burden of recipient countries, Chinese government provides economic aids in the way of interest free or low interest loan, the time limit of repayment could be delayed when it is needed. 4. The purpose of Chinese government providing foreign aid is not to make recipient countries being dependent on China, but to help recipient countries gradually develop on the track of self reliance and economic development independently. 5. For the projects constructed through China foreign aids, Chinese government does its best to make quick effects through smack investment. Thus, the governments of recipient countries could increase income and accumulate money. 6. Chinese government provides equipment and materials made in China with the best quality, and negotiate the price in accordance with the price of international market….7. While providing technical assistance, Chinese government assures to teach recipients to fully master this kind of technology. 8. The experts who are dispatched by Chinese government to help recipient countries carrying out construction, should be paid as same as their own experts of recipient countries. They are required to not have any special requirement and enjoyment. (Gountin:11-12).
[3]  The Four Principles include: 1. In carrying out economic and technological cooperation with African countries, China abides by the principles of unity and friendship, equality and mutual benefit, respects their sovereignty, does not interfere in their internal affairs, attaches no political conditions and asks for no privileges whatsoever. 2. In China’s economic and technological cooperation with African countries, full play will be given to the strong points and potentials of both sides on the basis of their actual needs and possibilities, and efforts will be made to achieve good economic results with less investment, shorter construction cycle and quicker returns. 3. China’s economic and technological cooperation with African countries takes a variety of forms suited to the specific conditions, such as offering technical services, training technical and management personnel, engaging in scientific and technological exchanges, undertaking construction projects, entering into cooperative production and joint ventures. ……4. The purpose of China’s economic and technological cooperation with African countries is to contribute to the enhancement of the self- reliant capabilities of both sides and promote the growth of the respective national economies by complementing and helping each other.(Brautigam, 1998:49-50).