Nearly 20 years ago China's suave, French-educated Premier Chou En-lai caught headlines with a high-level visit to Africa.
China's star as a fellow third-world country seemed brighter than ever. Then it nearly flickered out.
Today China seeks to rebrighten its star. For the first time since 1963, a high-level Chinese delegation is visiting Africa, this time on a month-long 10 -nation African tour. Ironically this comes at a time when China has almost no major economic and political involvements in Africa. Chinese foreign aid to Africa was sharply cut after Chairman Mao's passing in 1976.
Even though the stature of delegation leader Premier Zhao Ziyang is on the surface reminiscent of Chou En-lai's, this mission comes to Africa with few presents to present.
Peking has claimed a pinch in funds, offering governments in the area some assistance but little hope of major foreign aid. China's policy, officially adopted this year, of not exporting revolution offers little to ''liberation groups'' opposing South Africa.
All this is likely to be unimpressive for African countries, suggests Allen S. Whiting, a leading American specialist on Chinese Foreign Policy at the University of Arizona, Tucson. ''China will not get the same African response on the second time around,'' says Prof. Whiting, who adds the Africans are as likely to note that China's attention waned, as to note that it has now returned.
Prof. Whiting explains that Chinese involvement with third-world economic causes peaked between 1970 to 1975. The Chinese did build the $412 million Tazara Railway in the 1970s. But the Chinese could not really compete with the Soviets in materiel aid to Africa. So they largely withdrew. Similarly China declined to compete fully with the Soviet policy of supplying military aid to insurgents in Angola and Zimbabwe.
If the Chinese tell their hosts they cannot afford more, they could face some skeptics. Prof. Whiting says China has tremendous foreign exchange reserves. ''If anyone wants to debate China on its capacity to pay, there is grounds for debate.''
''Trips like these do not have tangible payoffs. They serve to reorient the image of China both overseas and at home among Chinese themselves.''
Already the mission has underlined China's interest in building bonds with African countries over ongoing maneuvers for Mideast peace talks. Prime Minister Zhao conferred Dec. 21 with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, after declaring on leaving Peking that Israel should have the right to exist, if it withdrew from Arab lands and allowed formation of a Palestinian state.
Whatever the concrete results in visits to Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Guinea, Zaire, Congo, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Kenya, the Zhao mission symbolizes the end of two eras.
Long gone are the chaotic times of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. Mao Tse-tung and his ''left'' faction disrupted China's foreign office and diplomatic service had made a mockery of Chou En-lai's efforts to conduct a professional foreign policy. The turmoil left its residue until the passing of Mao Tse-tung in 1976. Still the post-Mao period has cost African countries a cut in aid.
Also gone is China's enthusiastic pursuit of a united front with the United States against the Soviet Union. In the months just after the January 1979 normalization of ties between the US and China, China's major target was ''Soviet hegemony.''
Ties with the US and other industrialized countries like Britain, France, West Germany, and Japan seemed to block from view Chou En-lai's emphasis on close relations with third-world, nonaligned, developing countries.
After friction with Washington over arms sales to Taiwan, the Zhao trip reflects the present stress on distancing China from the US, improving relations with the Soviet Union, and reemphasizing China's ties with the third world.