China accepts tribute from its vassal, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe

BEIJING, China -- Great Hall of the People. Photo by Thomas Fanghaenel, Creative Commons

BEIJING, China — Great Hall of the People. Photo by Thomas Fanghaenel, Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE  
August  27, 2014 

The air in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People was heavy with the pungent smell of irony this week as China’s President Xi Jinping greeted his visiting Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, as an old comrade in the struggle against “imperialism, colonialism and hegemony.”

For Mugabe had come to Beijing to give his south-east African country of 13 million people to China, if not as a colonial possession, at least as a vassal state. In return, Beijing seems willing to adopt Mugabe and give him the diplomatic kudos of being China’s best friend in Africa. This has some real significance for a man who is the target of numerous international sanctions for his long history of human rights abuse.

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China’s President Xi Jinping greeted Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe as “an old comrade in the struggle against “imperialism, colonialism and hegemony.” Photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock, United States Air Force, U.S. government photo (public domain)

That significance is likely to grow early next year, when Mugabe is the odds-on favourite to be selected leader of the 54-member African Union (AU). The stage was set for Mugabe to be given this accolade last week when he was chosen unanimously to be chair of the 15-member Southern African Development Community.

Next year is southern Africa’s turn to provide the AU leadership, and Mugabe’s anti-colonial, freedom fighter history (actually, he was a behind-the-scenes schemer, not a fighter) still resonates with his brother leaders. His gross mismanagement of his own country and abuse of his people, a third of whom have fled abroad, is a secondary consideration.

But it will be a feather in Beijing’s cap to have its own man at the head of the AU, even though the appointment lasts only a year. Beijing will also be able to chuckle at the discomfort this will cause western countries that have applied sanctions on Mugabe, his friends and family, and limit their travel options. For example, it will be difficult to exclude Mugabe as head of the AU from international meetings, as Barack Obama did from this month’s inaugural United States-Africa summit in Washington.

The tawdriness of Beijing’s deal with Zimbabwe was given dramatic force by the excessive ceremony and imperial panoply with which Mugabe was greeted by Xi, who is not usually big on 21-gun salutes and flamboyant inspections of guards of honour.

It was tawdry because Mugabe had come to Beijing as a beggar, cap in hand. He is desperate for money since the economy of what was once Africa’s most productive country collapsed a decade ago after he expelled white farmers from their land and required black control, mostly by his family and friends, of companies operating in Zimbabwe.

He needs $4 billion urgently, just to keep the economy afloat and government salaries paid. Hundreds of manufacturing companies have closed in the past year, export revenues from the remaining mainstays, minerals and tobacco, are down 13 per cent, and unemployment sticks rigidly at 80 per cent.

During Mugabe’s three-day visit to China, officials signed nine agreements covering economic, trade and tourism co-operation, emergency food donations, and development loans. No details of the deals were made public, but Beijing has become skilled at playing on Mugabe’s weaknesses. It will have wrung every concession possible out of the 90-year-old who has ruled Zimbabwe since the end of white minority rule in 1980.

Zimbabwe is already the most successful of China’s thrusts into Africa to corner the continent’s resources by coercing the shrinking band of dictator leaders with money and blandishments. Last year, according to Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency, China invested over $600 million in Zimbabwe, more than in any other African country, and has granted more than double that in loans.

In return, Mugabe has given China what looks increasingly like a free run of the country. South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper, quoting sources in Zimbabwe’s finance ministry, reported last week that one of the gifts Mugabe carried to Beijing was exemption from competitive tenders for Chinese companies seeking government infrastructure project contracts. Zimbabwe’s infrastructure is creaking towards collapse after more than a decade of little or no investment and many people have electric power for only 12 hours a day at best. In response, Mugabe’s regime has a five-year, $27 billion development plan. But foreign investment in Zimbabwe has plunged 59 per cent to only $67 million in the first half of this year, according to the Central Bank in Harare, and even the Chinese are making tough risk assessments. Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa has visited Beijing three times in recent months trying to get China to buy into Zimbabwe’s development scheme, but without success.

The Chinese, however, have established a fruitful way of doing business with Zimbabwe. When the government is the partner, it is a relatively simple exchange of money – usually loans open to the sticky fingers of Mugabe’s cronies – for control over natural resources. A good example is a Chinese contractor, Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company, which is building a new national defence college outside the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, with the backing of a $98 million Chinese loan. Zimbabwe will pay back the loan over 20 years by giving the company access to the notorious Marange diamond field. There are already two other Chinese companies, Anjin Investments and Jinan Mining, operating at Marange, which is guarded by the Zimbabwe army. Mugabe’s troops killed about 200 local people when the army took control of the field in 2008 and they have since been accused of press-ganging women and children to work in the mines.

Efforts by Zimbabweans to get redress from government for the widespread allegations of physical and other abuses by Chinese employers get no response.

Mugabe’s cronies, who were given the farms confiscated, often at gun-point, from white farmers, are more and more frequently leasing the land to Chinese companies. Reports from all over Zimbabwe tell of Chinese managers, using Chinese agricultural equipment and techniques, bringing moribund farms back to life. The produce is usually sent home to China. Indeed, land for food production for the home market is a Chinese obsession all over Africa, not just in Zimbabwe.

The justification for confiscating the white farms was so the land could be distributed to landless black farmers. But it looks increasingly as though Zimbabwe’s peasant farmers have simply exchanged colonial masters.

During its last years of British colonial rule of Zimbabwe, and especially after what was then Rhodesia declared independence under the white minority regime of Ian Smith and attracted international sanctions, the country developed manufacturing industries matched in Africa only by South Africa. That is now almost all gone, destroyed by competition from cheaper, and usually inferior, imported Chinese household goods.

Something similar has happened in Zimbabwe’s once vibrant retail trade. For years Zimbabwean storeowners have been complaining they are being pushed out of business by waves of immigrant Chinese traders, who always manage to offer lower prices.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

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Further reading:

Contest to succeed Zimbabwe’s Mugabe heats upby Jonathan Manthorpe,  May 2014