China's reach across the African horizon

The Star Raft: China's Encounter with Africa, by Philip Snow. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 250 pp. $19.95. In ``The Star Raft,'' Philip Snow explores the complex relationship that has developed in recent decades between China and Africa. It is a subject that has received little attention in Western nations, which, as he says in his introduction, have been very absorbed in their own relations with Asia and Africa but ``have so far taken comparatively little trouble to examine how the peoples of those regions have got on among themselves.''

Although Snow's focus is on the modern era, he opens with two historical chapters, finding in the earliest periods of Chinese-African contact a useful context for discussing their relationship today.

In ``Chinese Columbus,'' for example, Snow describes the expeditions of Zheng He, whose fleet - the Star Raft - reached the African coast in 1418, preceding Columbus's expedition by 75 years and so greatly outstripping it in scale that, by comparison, Columbus's seems amateur.

Unlike the Portuguese assault on Africa that followed, Snow observes, the Chinese expedition came in peace. Moreover, the Chinese left. By the mid-15th century, China closed its doors, and contact between rulers of the two continents was renewed only after the communist revolution in 1949 - most pointedly with Chou En-lai's historic tour of Africa in 1963.

In the image of the Star Raft - which, despite its grandeur, accomplished little between the two regions - Snow sees a symbol for ``the whole history of the Chinese encounter with Africa - an encounter which has taken the form of a series of descents made upon the continent in the course of many centuries, massive, sometimes brilliant, often benevolent, but so far oddly ephemeral.'' With Chou's arrival, Snow says, ``the Star Raft ... recrossed the African horizon.'' One question he asks is whether this time it will stay.

Snow examines the nature of this second star raft in four themed chapters. In ``The Chinese as Missionary,'' he analyzes Chinese efforts in the '50s and '60s to deliver the ``gospel of independence to African soil'' - by providing receptive countries with arms, military training, and the diplomatic presence of Chou En-lai - and Africa's response to China's role as mentor. In ``Idealism versus Statecraft,'' he describes China's use of African nations in its power struggles with the United States, Taiwan, and the Soviet Union, and Africa's response to involvement in Chinese strategies.

In ``The Poor Help the Poor,'' Snow shows China reaching out to Africa with aid, as fellow members of the third world, while in ``Bridging the Chasm,'' he depicts some of the ethnic tensions that have characterized Chinese-African relations.

As Snow describes each of these aspects of China's approach to Africa, a pattern seems to emerge of zealous efforts, initial success, mistakes, failure, and reassessment.

By wooing African countries, for example, China gained entry into the United Nations. But pushing some strategies too far alienated Africans with its overtly self-serving positions.

China's generous aid to Africa was both practically and politically useful. But China, impoverished itself, keenly felt the depletion of resources at home; some Chinese felt that China ``was a poor country and ought to behave like one.'' Some ambitious projects - such as the Tan-Zam Railway, built to help free landlocked Zambia from dependence on white South Africa - needed more long-term assistance than China could provide.

When China's policies have failed, Snow suggests, the Chinese have tended to withdraw. But they have also reassessed and changed those policies. In some countries where China formerly gave extensive aid, for example, it has converted goodwill into good business, creating markets for goods and services. Most important, it has begun to overcome the problem of human relations - in Snow's view, the central issue in the Chinese-African encounter, and one that will have to be resolved if this time the Star Raft is to stay.

Perceptively observed and lucidly written, this is a valuable study of the cultural interplay between two very different regions. Snow, the son of C.P. Snow, has worked in China and traveled widely in Africa, and his account, drawn from numerous interviews and documents, is as knowledgeable as it is interesting. Occasionally, Snow oversimplifies - he has a tendency to refer to Africa as a unity and in somewhat idealized terms. Most often, he does justice to his subject's complexity, pointedly leading readers to reflect not only on China's relations with Africa, but also on the strengths and ``shortcomings of the West's relations with both.''

Gail Pool teaches English at Emmanuel College, Boston.

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