Speaking of the building of the TAZARA, I should start with the historical background and political situation back then. The 1960s witnessed a surge of national independence movements on the African continent. In East Africa, Tanzania, which was then called Tanganyika, was the first to gain independence.
Tanganyika was known as a front-line state at that time. Countries like Kenya to its north, Burundi and Rwanda to its west, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe to its south, as well as South Africa and South West Africa, were not independent.
Parties leading the independence movements of these countries had set up offices in Dar es Salaam, the then capital of Tanzania. They sought external support mainly through Tanzania.
If China were to support the national independence of these countries, support were also transferred through Tanzania. So Tanzania’s position was very important.
Geographically, Tanzania was the front-line of the national liberation movement of Sub-Saharan Africa. So, once Tanzania became independent, the Chinese central government attached great importance to this event, and appointed He Ying as the Chinese ambassador to Tanzania. He was assigned the duty not only to develop China’s friendly relations with Tanzania, but also to take the country as a center to make contacts with the countries in eastern and southern part of Africa that were not independent, and support their national liberation movements.
Back then, a large part of the embassy’s work was to contact the offices set up by these regions in Tanzania. Leaders of the independence movements in these colonies often came to our embassy for economic, fiscal and material assistance. This was a very important background.
The second background was that shortly after China established diplomatic ties with Tanganyika in 1961, there happened a border conflict between China and India. The Tanganyikan government heard a one-sided story from India, and was ready to make a statement to condemn China and support India.
The Tanganyikan government sent the script to news agencies of various countries in Tanzania, and the Xinhua News Agency got one as well. We at the embassy felt the pressure and were in a hurry to think about what to do.
We studied the situation, and made the bold decision of asking for an emergency meeting with the former Prime Minister Julius Nyerere. Back then, Nyerere had stepped down as Prime Minister, but he was still chairman of the ruling party.
As we had learned, he actually held political power, and had influ-ence on Prime Minister Rashidi Kawawa. So, we directly turned to Mr. Nyerere. After the appointment was made, we brought a map with us to visit Nyerere.
We explained to him what really happened to the borders between China and India, and pointed out that if Tan-ganyika was to release the present statement, it would not only be a partial support for India and an unfair treatment for China, but also would it do harm to China-Tanzania relationship.
Should this happen, it would never be easy to recover the relations. We asked that the Tanganyikan side consider this issue seriously. Nyerere said, “Okay, please let me discuss with my friends and colleagues.” The result was that he called a few hours later and said the first statement had been withdrawn, and they issued another fairer statement, in which it called for restraint on both sides.
After the China-India border conflict came to an end, Chairman Mao decided to withdraw the Chinese troops to positions 20 kilometers behind the line of actual control which existed between China and India, repatriate all the Indian captives and return their arms. When Nyerere heard that, he said China had done a great job. Since then, he trusted China even more. This was another background.
In this situation, Nyerere wished to further develop relations with China. After the independence of Tanganyika and the founding of Tanzania, Zambia also gained independence. Nyerere initiated the idea of building a rail-way from Tanzania to Zambia to promote the national economy of the two countries and consolidate their national independence. Once President Nyerere had the plan, he turned to the Western countries first, which made things difficult for him. So did the Western financial institutions.
They were unwilling to help. President Nyerere then looked to the former Soviet Union, which turned him down as well. But he did not give up. Now that Tanzania had established strong friendly relations with China, could he turn to China and give it a try? With such purposes, President Nyerere sent Abdulrahman Babu, minister in charge of commercial cooperation, to visit China ahead of himself in early 1965.
Babu himself was quite pessimistic and believed that China was not likely to agree to help build the railway, because he know after all that China had just recovered from three years of natural disasters, its economy was still very weak and the people were living difficult life.
Babu suggested to us that we should not reject it immediately if President Nyerere presented this request, and tell him we need some time to think it over. He stressed that President Nyerere would be very disappointed otherwise.
China was really in a difficult time, and there were many things waiting to be done ourselves. However, the central government adopted a strategic view, and thought that we should provide help now that our African friends proposed the request.
We should offer assistance even if that meant we would eat and use less ourselves. Tanzania was our close friend, if they grew stronger, we would become stronger. The central government considered this issue in this way, rather than calculating the economic gains and losses. It resulted that Chairman Mao, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai studied together and decided to say yes.
I remember when President Nyerere visited China, it was me who accompanied him on the plane to Beijing. It turned out that he did not mention it in the first round of talks. We knew what was on his mind, and suggested to him that if he had any request he could present it to us without any hesitation, and China would consider it seriously.
Then President Nyerere proposed it to the then Chinese leader Liu Shaoqi. President Nyerere was ecstatic when the later immediately agreed, since this might have been unexpected for him. When he heard that China agreed, he was so happy that he again got a little out of breath. I remember that Chairman Mao once said to President Nyerere, “You have difficulties, so do we. But your difficulties are different from ours. We will still help you build this railway even if that means we won’t be able to build railways on our own land.”
Thus, China and Tanzania reached agreement in principle. That was what President Nyerere’s visit to Beijing was about. Premier Zhou once said, “What the West-ern imperialists refuses to do, we will help you do. And as long as we decide to do it, we will do it well.” To build the railway, nearly 70 Chinese workers lost their lives in Tanzania and Zambia. More importantly, Premier Zhou once said, “We shouldn’t be like the Westerners, who demanded privileges for any help they offer.” Of course, when we look back, what we did was right and had very positive influence.
As the TAZARA was China’s first and largest assistance project for Africa. Through the comparison, African brothers believed that China was better, China was a real friend, and China was an all-weather friend that was committed to the independence and development of Africa.
When a large number of African countries won independence, they established diplomatic ties with us. Therefore, the political significance of China’s assistance in building the TAZARA went far beyond the economic term, especially after Zambia had more routes for its exports.
It was a major decision for China to spend about 1 billion RMB yuan on this railway while living frugally ourselves. I noticed that in his recent visit to Tanzania, President Xi Jinping particularly praised the TAZARA spirit, and visited the Cemetery for Memorable Deceased Chinese Experts Assisting Tanzania. China’s assistance in building the railway has far-reaching significance, which continues to the present.
(This article is an excerpt of Mr Zhou Nan’s narration about TAZARA, which was included in the book: A Monument to China-Africa Friendship: Firsthand Account of the Building of the TAZARA.)