China Tries Joining the Third World

<i> Jim Mann is The Times correspondent in Peking</i>

For three decades, China has repeatedly proclaimed solidarity with the Third World. One of the fundamental elements of its foreign policy puts China in the same boat with countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Three months ago, in his annual report to the National People’s Congress, Premier Zhao Ziyang declared that “China belongs to the Third World.” And he went on: “China steadfastly opposes imperialism, colonialism and racism and supports the Third World countries in their just struggle to achieve and safeguard national independence.”

But to what extent does China share interests with the impoverished and debt-ridden nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America?

These questions rise in the wake of a violent clash between Chinese and black African students at a Chinese university. Some of the African students say they are subjected to continuing racial discrimination in China.


The clash occurred on May 24 at Tianjin University. Shortly before midnight, at least 300 Chinese students surrounded a dining hall where African and other foreign students were having a dance to celebrate African Liberation Day. The Chinese were said to have been irritated by noisy music, but some African students have suggested that the Chinese students were more upset about the presense of a few Chinese women.

The Chinese threw stones and bottles into the building; Chinese officials say the Africans threw bottles back. After a tense, five-hour standoff, the foreign students were removed to a hotel for their protection. Six days later they fled to Peking, after 500 to 600 Chinese students marched to municipal headquarters demanding that authorities take further action against the foreigners.

Over the past few years there have been several similar incidents. In 1979, during a fracas between Chinese and African students in Shanghai, 43 people were injured.

Yet China has continued to claim Third World kinship. As a reflection of its policy, China regularly endorses the views of Third World countries at the United Nations and other international forums. It condemns Israel and South Africa at every available opportunity, frequently including the United States in its criticism.


This stance, which China views as an outgrowth of its independent foreign policy, has increasingly annoyed U.S. policy-makers. Last summer, at a meeting here with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a group of seven U.S. senators headed by Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) complained about China’s refusal to support U.S. positions at the U.N..

Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.), a former ambassador to the United Nations, told Deng he felt that China was conducting a “two-United States policy"--working closely with Washington on bilateral issues but opposing it at the U.N.

There seems now to be an argument within the U.S. government, about how much China’s public criticism really matters. In a speech last month, the U.S. ambassador to China, Winston Lord, acknowledged that China’s public diplomacy on behalf of the Third World tends to undercut support for China in the United States. But he also said that U.S. officials “should distinguish between words and actions,” adding, “On Asian issues where we largely agree, China devotes concrete resources. Elsewhere, their moves are largely rhetorical.”

Over the years, China’s pro-Third World posture has served different purposes at different times. In the 1960s, at the height of the Sino-Soviet split, it enabled the Chinese Communist Party to compete with the Soviet Communist Party for influence abroad. China accused the Soviet Union of putting too much emphasis on coexistence with the United States and of failing to support people’s armed struggles in places such as Algeria.


Just how far China has come from those days of revolutionary militancy became clear last month at a seminar on peace in Shanghai when Su Shaozhi, a leading theoretician and head of China’s Institute for Marxism, Leninism and Mao Tse-tung Thought, asserted that revolutionaries in the world should use nonviolent methods to bring about social change.

These days, China’s public support for the Third World serves a different purpose. It provides breathing room as China conducts a delicate triangular policy--trying to improve relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union while, at the same time, trying to play off the two superpowers against each other.

Whenever China offends the United States, as it did by expressing support for Libya this spring, or whenever it irks the Soviet Union, as it does by denouncing the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, China can avoid conflict by arguing that it is, after all, just a poor Third World country with an independent foreign policy.

But China’s Third World credentials remain questionable. On the surface, considering its poverty and level of development, China may seem to belong to the Third World. Its per capita income last year--$124 in the countryside and $235 in urban areas--put China at the level of many other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. If a Third World country is defined as a place where there are not many telephones and those that are there do not work very well, then at the moment China qualifies.


Chinese leaders clearly expect, however, to leave the rest of the Third World in its tracks one day. A few weeks ago Zhao promised the prime minister of Cape Verde that China will stand on the side of the Third World, “even when its economy is developed.”

China, like the Third World, has a non-white population and a non-Western tradition. However significant such racial and cultural distinctions may have been in the era of decolonization 30 or 40 years ago, they seem far less significant today. Some nations in East Asia, such as South Korea, are non-white and increasingly prosperous; some in Europe, such as Portugal, are white and poor.

Incidents such as the one involving African students at Tianjin demonstrate that racial problems are not simply a matter of Western whites versus oppressed others.

The truth is that China, by its own aspirations, is a future superpower. In economic terms, China is now attempting to follow the prosperous path of development blazed by Asian neighbors like South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. In political terms, China is for now fervently pressing the causes of peace and disarmament to gain the time and stability necessary for economic growth. But China clearly intends to play an increasingly influential role, at least in Asia and possibly in the world.


Until recently, Chinese leaders were declaring independence from all foreign entanglements. “China refrains from seeking alliance with any other countries, including Third World countries,” Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the Communist Party, said in a 1984 speech. This year, promises of non-involvement with Third World countries have been dropped from policy pronouncements, an indication that China is keeping its military and strategic options open.

Now, China seems to have less in common than it used to have with the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, however much it professes solidarity. By virtue of its huge size and population, China can be classified as a world unto itself. But while the Third World still exists, China is outgrowing it.