‘China and the Devil Slaves’: challenging Afro-Asian solidarities in Tanzania

George Roberts
Feb 13, 2017 · 5 min read

The close relationship between communist China and socialist Tanzania is often held up as an example of ‘actually existing’ Afro-Asian solidarity in the early Cold War era. The anticolonial image that China projected into Africa resonated with the development policies and nation-building project of the Tanzanian government. Although Tanzania’s chosen African socialist path to development explicitly eschewed Marxism, it borrowed heavily from Maoist repertoire. Both Chinese and Tanzanian socialism romanticised the peasantry as a rural backbone for overcoming Third World underdevelopment. Tanzanian nationalist youth appropriated the tropes of the Cultural Revolution, organising themselves into platoons of ‘Green Guards’. President Julius Nyerere adopted a Mao-style tunic. These Afro-Asian connections were monumentalised by the construction of a 1,860 kilometre-long railway between the port of Dar es Salaam and the copperbelt of neighbouring Zambia. The so-called ‘Freedom Railway’ was financed by an interest-free loan from Beijing and built with the aid of Chinese workers. [1]

Nyerere visits China, 1965 (http://english.ecnu.edu.cn/)

China’s growing influence in Tanzania evoked a mixture of jealously and fear in Western capitals. In 1967, the Wall Street Journal conjured up nightmarish images of ‘the prospect of hundreds and perhaps thousands of Red Guards descending upon already troubled Africa is a chilling one for the West.’[2] From Dar es Salaam, the British high commissioner described the Chinese as ‘hostile, arrogant, secretive and clannish interlopers in what was until recently a western preserve… They are dedicated to supplanting us in it.’[3] In the context of the expansion of the struggle between the two communist powers in the Third World after the Sino-Soviet split, these anxieties were mirrored by Eastern Bloc representatives in Tanzania. The Chinese presented themselves as an ally to African states in their struggle against neocolonialism. ‘Imperialism and all enemies of progress are paper leopards’, read a banner outside the Chinese embassy — there being no tigers in Africa and so no Swahili word for them.[4]

In July 1968, a pamphlet entitled ‘Outlook from the Pamirs’ appeared in Dar es Salaam. It represented a scathing assault on China. Running counter to the anticolonial language that pervaded Beijing’s propaganda, it alleged that Beijing planned to create an ‘Asiatic Reich’ and described Mao as the ‘Socialist Genghis Khan’. The ‘rampaging adolescents’ of the Red Guards had been promised that they would be let loose against foreign targets. ‘To any normal person such plans seem like the ravings of a madman or a monstrous phantasmagoria’, it continued. Yet ‘anyone who knows the history of world politics will member that there has never been any shortage of mad plans.’ The pamphlet’s text was partly based on articles which had appeared in a Soviet journal, Literaturnaya Gazeta, the previous year. No publisher or author was given. Its provenance remained a mystery.

The following January, another pamphlet came into circulation in Tanzania, called ‘China and the Devil Slaves’. It began: ‘Why do the Chinese, when they talk among themselves, always refer to the Africans as the “devil slaves”? Because for many centuries they have regarded the Africans as inferior beings. Beings suitable only for slavery, or to be sterilised, or to be wiped off the face of the earth.’ A series of dubious ‘historical’ examples followed. It quoted an early twentieth-century Chinese writer, Kang-Jou Wei, who called Africans ‘stupid like sheep or swine’ and ‘a real difficult problem, owing to their extreme ugliness and stupidity’. The pamphlet claimed to be the work of the ‘German African Society in the German Democratic Republic’, written by the East German Africanist Walter Markow, ‘assisted by Stephen Mhando’. The envelopes in which it was circulated bore East German postmarks. Mhando was Tanzania’s minister of state for foreign affairs. He was believed — somewhat unusually, given the Maoist tendencies among many of the Tanzanian elite — to be close to the Soviet Bloc. In the early 1960s, Mhando had taught Swahili in Leipzig and married an East German there.

‘China and the Devil Slaves’ (Source: National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD)

Both pamphlets are specimens of the black literature which fuelled intrigue and apprehension in Dar es Salaam at the height of the Cold War in Africa. Who produced them? China had any number of enemies in Tanzania. Much suspicion fell on East Germany, which had developed a reputation for particularly vicious propaganda. East Berlin had much to lose from increasingly Chinese influence in Tanzania, where it had minor diplomatic representation — an anomaly in Africa at the time. On both occasions, East German representatives disavowed any responsibility. In the case of ‘China and the Devil Slaves’, they alleged that it was a West German fabrication, designed to smear the GDR. In return, the West Germans suggested it was a fantastic double-bluff operation, through which the GDR sought to frame its rivals: no one would expect the notorious East Germans to be that crude; the pamphlet would be therefore perceived as a West German job. A forensic investigation conducted by the State Department found that the paper and staples used were from North Korea, only muddying the waters further still — though the Americans still believed the culprit was to be found in the Eastern Bloc.

Beyond the smoke-and-mirrors of Dar es Salaam’s propaganda wars, the content of the pamphlets is instructive. China’s enemies had identified the successful ingredient behind its growing Third World influence. Beijing was not simply an alternative Cold War sponsor, bringing baskets of aid to needy post-colonial states. Nor was its appeal grounded in socialist doctrine. Rather, its relationship with Tanzania was underpinned by an ideological blend of anti-imperialism and racial, non-white solidarities. That the Eastern Bloc felt the need to challenge these connections head-on demonstrates the strength of such Afro-Asian ties, simultaneously transcending and embedded in the global Cold War.

[1] See Jamie Monson, Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania (Bloomington, IN, 2008); Priya Lal, ‘Maoism in Tanzania: Material Connections and Shared Imaginaries’, in Alexander C. Cook (ed.), Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History (Cambridge, 2014), 96–116.

[2] Quoted in Monson, Africa’s Freedom Railway, 6.

[3] UK National Archives, Kew, FCO 31/690/2.

[4] Quoted in Lal, ‘Maoism in Tanzania’, 112.

George Roberts is a Teaching Fellow in Modern African History at the University of Warwick. He recently defended his PhD thesis on politics, decolonisation, and the Cold War in Dar es Salaam. Email: g.roberts.1@warwick.ac.uk.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

George Roberts

Written by

Teaching Fellow @warwickhistory. Global Cold War, decolonisation, post-colonial Africa, histories of the global South, Tanzanian politics.

Afro-Asian Visions

New Perspectives on Decolonisation, the Cold War, and Asian-African Connections.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade