Chinese Vice Premier Li Hsien-nien is nearing the end of a four-nation tour of black Africa that is clearly intended to counter growing Soviet influence in the region.
But there has been no indication so far during the visit that China has any intention of trying to match the Soviet challenge by stepping up military assistance to the countries Li is visiting or to various nationalist guerrilla groups that use them as bases.
Li, who stands fourth in China's ruling hierarchy, is the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Africa since the late premier Chou En-lai, whose tour in 1965 is still remembered for his famous remark that "Africa is ripe for revolution."
Li left here Tuesday for Zaire after visiting Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. All are countries where China's chief Communist rival for influence in Afica, the Soviet Union, has been making inroads, largely because of the Soviet ability and readiness to supply arms to both the governments and liberation movements based in these countries.
Tanzania last year received two squadrons of Mig jet fighters from the Soviet Union. Mozambique has signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with Moscow and Zambia is the main conduit for Soviet arms going to the Zimbabwe African People's Union, the Rhodesian nationalist faction supported by the Soviets and based here.
Li apparently had little success in his efforts to line up public Zambian support for China's dispute with the Soviet Union. He stressed in several speeches that Zambia and China were partners in the same Third World struggle against "imperialism, racism, and hegemonism," the latter term an oblique reference to the Soviet Union.
Zambian leaders, mindful of Soviet support for the Rhodesian guerrillas, did not reciprocate in these same terms, noting instead they the two countries were linked by 78common ideas, goals and the struggle against imperialism."
Nonetheless, here and in Tanzania, China still seems to be the most favored of the two Communist super-powers, largely because of the Chinese-built, 1,100-mile Tazara railroad linking the Zambian copper blet to the Indian Ocean Tanzanian port and capital, Dar es Salaam.
The $400 million project remains the largest foreign undertaking in economic assistance by China, according to Chinese Embassy officials here.
Despite numerous difficulties encountered by Zambia and Tanzania in running the rail line since its opening in 1976, the Tazara is highly valued by both countries and constitutes Zambia's main access to the sea.
The Chinese vice premier was warmly feted in the four capitals, and Chinese economic and technical assistance was lauded in the local press.
Typical of the praise for China was an editorial in the Zambian Daily Mail Saturday, the day of Li's arrival here:
"When we decided to invite the people of China to build Tazara, the Western countries warned that we were inviting China to colonize us. It was much to the shame of some Western countries when they saw that while building Tazara, nonbody saw the Chinese on the streets.
"When their task was completed they did not cook up excuses to stay in the country a little longer. They left after having trained our people how to run Tazara."
Noting that many Chinese were stil working in Zambian hospitals and other institutions, it added, "There has not been a single report of complaints against thme."
Li's African trip has been generally rich in ceremony and state dinners and short or substance, giving Western observers the impression he has come more to show Chinese moral and diplomatic support for the African front line states in the Rhodesian dispute than to negotiate new military or economic agreements.
Chinese officials here remarked privately before Li's arrival that China has "limited resources" and is now preoccupied with its own modernization, making a major increase in aid to Africa difficult.
Li did sign a new scientific and technical aid agreement with Zambia and pledged more but unspecified economic assistance "within the scope of our capabilities." He also laid the cornerstone for a $27 million textile mill China is building in Kabwe, 60 miles north of here.
The last day of the Chinese leader's visit here was overshadowed by news that the Zambian Army early Sunday had intercepted a 30man Rhodesian commando group crossing into Zambia below the Victoria Falls railway bridge near Livingstone. The leader of the group was shot dead and a picture of his body was prominently displayed on the front page of the two morning newspapers.
The incident occurred one day before Li's visit to Livingstone and Victoria Falls, and there was speculation in the local press that the Rhodesians had deliberately sought to disrupt the visit by sending commandos to provoke incidents.
Li took advantage of the incident to hail Zambia's support for the Rhodesian nationalist struggle but he did not say China would step up its own military assistance, which generally goes to those groups not being aided by the Soviet Union. These include the Mozambique-based Zimbab-we African National Union, led by Robert Mugabe, and the Pan Africanist Congress in South Africa.
Li met with Mugabe in Maputo, the Mozambican capital, but did not see the leader of the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union, Joshua Nkomo, who is on a tour of Eastern Bloc countries and Yugoslavia.