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03/11/2013 00:00:00
by Asahi.com
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UNDER the iron grip of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's economy lies in ruins with allegations of rampant human rights abuses.

Yet, the country once known as Africa's "bread basket" is attracting Chinese firms in ever-growing numbers.

Western companies left Zimbabwe long ago, unable to tolerate the policies of the now 89-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980.

China is keen to exploit the country’s vast mineral resources and restore its ability to be a leading producer of crops.

Mugabe is no darling of the West. But his administration welcomes the growing Chinese interest, even though ordinary citizens are clearly wary.

The farming town of Chinhoyi is located roughly 100 kilometres northwest of Harare. Fields operated by local farmers flank the main road. The harvest is finished, the dry season has begun and the grass is withered and flattened.

Suddenly, a vast tract of verdant farmland comes into view. Countless automatic sprinklers shower the fields with water. The sight is reminiscent of the days when Zimbabwe was a model of agricultural ingenuity for the rest of Africa.

But it is the red flag of China that flies over this land these days. Smartly attired Chinese in suits come and go.

The land was a white-owned farm that was seized by the Mugabe administration. A Chinese company has operated it for around three years under a contract with the Zimbabwean government.

According to a manager there, the 5,000-hectare farm grows wheat, soybeans, tobacco and other crops that are harvested twice a year. There are plans to expand the farm to 8,000 hectares in the near future. The manager said 20 Chinese and 500 Zimbabweans work the farm.

In addition to direct management, Chinese companies are sprouting across the country, drawing up contracts with individual local farmers.

One top official has a contract with a Chinese company to sell agricultural produce from 200 hectares of formerly white-owned farmland now in his possession. His workers use fertilizer and pesticide provided at no cost by the company. He sells the harvested tobacco wholesale to the company.

"Chinese companies pay good money," the official said. "Of course I welcome Japanese companies, too, but I wonder whether they'll do anything for me that the Chinese don't do already."


On the other hand, Commercial Farmers Union President Charles Taffs says he has lost all his farmland.

"I made that farmland," he said. "It doesn't make sense (for Chinese companies to run it)."

Seeking minerals

Chinese companies are also significantly expanding operations in businesses related to Zimbabwe's vast mineral wealth, such as gold, diamonds and chromium.

About 60 kilometres north of Harare, a dirt road in Mashonaland central leads to a gold mine. There, Chinese-made trucks and heavy machinery work at full capacity. A local guard wears an armband marked "People's Republic of China-Security" in Chinese. An election poster for Mugabe hangs near the entrance.

Not far from the mine is a simple building housing Chinese engineers. There is also a field growing Chinese vegetables like green onion and garland chrysanthemum. Engineers can be found playing mah-jongg in a small room.

The site, which is home to 12 Chinese, employs 150 Zimbabweans. None of the Chinese is fluent in English, the country's official language. The only thing one Chinese man, apparently the boss, said in English was, "Business, good. Gold, many."

According to Joe, a 55-year-old miner, conditions deteriorated after the mine's management switched from a British company to the Chinese one.

"Pay and safety have both declined. Even when we're working 200 meters below ground, the Chinese won't take measures to prevent cave-ins," Joe said.

He said the Chinese firm is expanding the scale of extraction at nearby gold mines.

An economist with the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) weighed in with this observation: "We are becoming economically colonized by China. Labourers at Chinese companies are working under tragically bad conditions. They're practically treated like slaves."

After sanctions

Zimbabwe, formerly called Rhodesia, was once a British colony. The white minority continued to rule the land even after other African countries began gaining independence in the 1950s.

Mugabe, who fought a war of independence in the name of "ethnic liberation," has run the country as the "hero of the people" since winning its freedom in 1980.

China had supported Mugabe's independence movement in the past, and in 2002 it quickly strengthened both economic and military ties with Zimbabwe.

This was after a deterioration in relations with the West when the Mugabe administration began seizing large white-owned farms in 2000.

Zimbabwe, suffering under Western economic sanctions, formulated its "Look East" diplomatic policy, placing a greater emphasis on Asia, and strengthening economic ties with China became a way for it to escape its difficulties.

China, meanwhile, has its eyes on Zimbabwe's abundant mineral resources and high agricultural productivity.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called Zimbabwe "an old friend," and China has used this relationship to accelerate its companies' forays into the Zimbabwean economy.

In the presidential election held in July, Western countries backed Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who is sympathetic to their interests.

There was hope that a change in government would lead to a revival of economic relations, but the results gave Mugabe a landslide victory.

According to press reports, Mugabe met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on September 24. Mugabe said, "China is our most trustworthy partner."

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