Portrait Displays and Political Strategies: Negotiating Solidarity in Sino-Tanzanian Relations
In the mid-1960s, a succession of Tanzanian diplomatic and cultural delegations visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC), following the union of Tanganyika and Zanzibar in 1964 and the leftward turn in Tanzanian politics. Though public rhetoric of anti-imperial solidarity defined these occasions, they sometimes also became protracted private forums for hosts and guests to negotiate the terms and strategies of Afro-Asianism.
This dynamic is captured by the quiet dispute that unfolded in June 1965 between a TANU (Tanganyika African National Union) Youth League representative and his Chinese counterparts while in Shanghai. As the TANU delegate purchased a bust of Mao Zedong for display in his workplace, he offered, “Please don’t be upset, but even though I’ve often watched scenes from the movies of the Chinese people enthusiastically welcoming [Tanzanian President Julius] Nyerere, in none of the many places I visited on this trip did I see a portrait of Nyerere or [Second Vice President Rashidi] Kawawa, while our offices in Tanzania all hang portraits of Zhou En-lai.” A quick-thinking Chinese official responded that his fellow countrymen did not hold Nyerere and Kawawa in pictures, but in their hearts. It emerged however, that over the course of a visit marked by explicit displays of Sino-African understanding — from a workers’ artistic troupe that danced “Rise Up, Africa” and a female soprano who performed “Dark Lady” to warm exchanges with elementary school students — the egalitarian promise of Afro-Asianism was more easily declared than fulfilled. Just as the international circulation of socialist icons and objects consolidated the Afro-Asian community, it revealed lines of contention within.
Efforts of Chinese hosts to monitor the political beliefs of Tanzanian visitors, especially with regards to their stance on the Soviet Union and on the Republic of China (Taiwan), also sometimes met with frustration. In June 1966, twenty-two Tanzanian soccer players arrived in China for a series of five friendly matches in Beijing, Shanghai, and Wuhan. The records of the Shanghai officials who received them stated the core objectives of their reception: to cultivate young propagandists for the Chinese position, and specifically, to “expose the conspiracy of U.S. imperialists to expand its war of aggression [in Vietnam] and the fake support of Soviet revisionists.” Initially, the visit seemed to proceed without any issues; the team expressed wonder at Chinese economic self-reliance, as embodied by its nationally produced cars and petrol gas, and Chinese humility, as conveyed by the claim that the highest-earning government ministers only took home the equivalent of sixty British pounds each month. But upon arrival at a revolutionary museum, the Chinese officials were disoriented by the revelation that the Tanzanian team leader had heard of neither of Chiang Kai-Shek nor Taiwan. In Chinese notes, this incident is recorded as one that “revealed [the Tanzanian] lack of knowledge about China.”
Indeed, the question of how to rectify mainland China’s exclusion from the United Nations while the Republic of China occupied a seat in the Security Council was a thorny one. When He Ying, Chinese Ambassador to Tanzania, held an audience with Nyerere after the twentieth session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1965, Nyerere had reflected, “Regrettably we were defeated again… But many African countries don’t support China because they don’t agree to completely connect the issue of restoring China’s seat with the removal of Taiwan. I believe that because the U.N. has room for one China, [we can] consider the passing of a proposal that recognizes the PRC as the legal representative of China, without also bringing up the expulsion of Taiwan.” This evoked a stern rebuttal from He, who insisted that such a proposition amounted to the tacit recognition of “two Chinas,” precisely the wish of the American imperialist government. While He was ultimately conciliatory — offering that even with the People’s Republic remaining outside of the U.N., its “Afro-Asian friends” would continue the struggle against American imperialism from within — this exchange underscores that the Afro-Asian front of the Cold War is as much a story of arbitration as it is of unity.
From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, the socialist governments in China and Tanzania figured prominently in Afro-Asian networks, and their bilateral relationship served as a bedrock of Afro-Asia, in ideal and in practice. Chinese-funded projects in Tanzania were upheld as an alternative model of international assistance and aid, not only by the parties involved but by other Third World observers as well. Even so, small moments of contention in Sino-Tanzanian diplomatic and cultural exchanges, visits which affirmed Afro-Asian unity to both national and international publics, indicate that such claims elide constant negotiation over the premises and meanings of solidarity.
“Gongqingtuan shanghai shiwei jiedai tansangniya daibiantuan de jihua, huibao [Plans and Reports for the Shanghai Communist Youth League’s Reception of Tanzanian Delegation],” Shanghai Municipal Archives (SMA), C21–2–2640.
“Guanyu jiedai tansangniya zuqiudui de tongzhi [Notice Concerning the Reception of the Tanzanian Soccer Team],” SMA, B126–1–951. Amanda Shuman describes this particular delegation visit in detail, tracing its route through Chinese sites from a factory employing the disabled to a church. See Amanda Shuman, “‘Giving Prominence to Politics’: African Sportsmen Visit China in the Early Cultural Revolution,” in Kathryn Batchelor and Xiaoling Zhang eds., China-Africa Relations: Building Images through Cultural Cooperation, Media Representation, and Communication (New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 51–72.
“Zhu tansangniya dashi baihui tanzongtu nileier tan ershijie liandai huifu woxiwei wenti [Ambassador to Tanzania Calls on Tanzanian President Nyerere to Discuss the Question of Restoring Our Country’s Seat at the Twentieth Session of the General Assembly],” Beijing Foreign Ministry Archives, 113–00485–15.
See Jamie Monson, Africa’s Freedom Railway: How a Chinese Development Project Changed Lives and Livelihoods in Tanzania(Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 2009), Priya Lal, “Maoism in Tanzania: Material Connections and Shared Imaginaries” in Alexander Cook ed., Mao’s Little Red Book: A Global History(New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 91–116, and Alicia Altorfer-Ong, “Old Comrades and New Brothers: A Historical Re-Examination of the Sino-Zanzibari and Sino-Tanzanian Bilateral Relationships in the 1960s” (PhD diss., London School of Economics and Political Science, 2014).