China-Zimbabwe relations: From liberation to United front

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By Fani Zvomuya

Recently, on April 18, Zimbabwe celebrated its Independence Day and the milestone was important to reflect on its journey, and its trajectory as it navigates the path of growth.

Typically, the day was one of reflection and optimism; and also a juncture to evaluate Zimbabwe’s place in the modern world, which obliged and feted to the young nation’s celebration.

One of the most important pillars of Zimbabwe’s past, present and future is arguably its relationship with China, which played a critical role to support the country’s liberation from British colonialism, has become a buffer against neocolonialism and hold the key to the southern African country’s consolidation and progress.

China’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Mr Zhou Ding’s remarks are critical to unpack this significance.

Said Amb Zhou: “On the occasion of the 44th Independence Day of Zimbabwe (and) the 44th anniversary of diplomatic relations, President Xi Jinping sent warm congratulations to President E.D. Mnangagwa and reaffirmed to consolidate our comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation.”

He also emphasised in his reflections that, “My tribute to all who have fought for the hard-won victory against colonialism, and who have safeguarded the unity and development of Zimbabwe.”

These reflections paint a canvas of a relationship that means so much for the two sides punctuated with a number of political, economic and social dynamics that are critical to understand.



China has enjoyed good relations with Zimbabwe, dating back to some 600 years, but has evolved progressively since, with each passing year gaining significant momentum and weight.

In modern times, the past 50 years have been critical since China lent support to the nationalist liberation project by black people who were then under colonial rule in what was called Rhodesia.

The key historical moment was when China extended military training to some of the first cadres from Zimbabwe to prosecute the war of independence, which was itself inspired by Chinese liberation movement that had led to its Independence in 1949, led by Chairman Mao Zedong.

Authoritative Zimbabwean Historian, Phyllis Johnson writes: “The first group of five recruits for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu) went to China for six months training in military science on September 22 1963, led by Emmerson Mnangagwa.

“A second group, who had basic training in Ghana in 1964, went to China in 1965 for advanced training as instructors.

“Early in 1966, Josiah Magama Tongogara led a group of 11 to the Nanjing Academy in Beijing where they trained in mass mobilisation, strategy and tactics, returning to Tanzania later the same year.”

According to Johnson, Tongogara, who became Commander of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), “learned in China that it was vital to mobilise the people, and it was that lesson which shaped future strategy”.

Johnson records that eight Chinese instructors arrived at Zanla’s training camp at Itumbi in southern Tanzania in January 1969. One of these instructors, Comrade Li, the infantry expert, played a particularly important role in the evolution of the new strategy. It was at Itumbi and other training camps, that the recruits learned the meaning of “a people’s war, a people’s army, the objectives of the war and the basic teachings of Chairman Mao on guerrilla warfare…”

Johnson further cites a former recruit who says: “The Chinese, who by then had 20 instructors at Mgagao, believed that you have got to be matured politically in your head before you go and shoot…I learned that the decisive factor was not the weapons but the people.”

It is critical to note that so inspirational was China’s support and Chairman Mao’s teachings that it taught liberation-seeking Zimbabweans not just the art of war, but also morale discipline, even immortalised in liberation songs that inspired the war.

According to an account, one Paul Chigango composed the hugely influential song, ‘Nzira Dzemasoja’ while at Mgagao Training Camp soon after completing an orientation session on the guiding principles for Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle.

Chigango recalls, “We had just finished an orientation session on Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s Red Book, which became the guiding principle during the liberation struggle.

“I wrote the song based on Chairman Mao’s military doctrine ‘Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention’.”

With such music as the soundtrack of war; and Chinese discipline and philosophy as guiding lights, the war was successfully prosecuted with Zanla as the leading fighting force with Chinese support, alongside Zipra (Zimbabwe People’s Liberation Army) which had the support from Russia.

However, the war – which culminated in the Lancaster House negotiations in Britain in 1979 – came at a huge cost in terms of lives, with thousands of  people killed by the colonial settler forces, while there was need to reconstruct and modernise the independent nation.

China had underlined its importance to Zimbabwe, a brotherhood bonded through blood and sacrifice.

Comprehensive strategic partnership

Fifty years on, a lot has changed but the fundamentals remain the same for China-Zimbabwe friendship.

China has remained a steadfast friend and ally leading to the evolution of the bond into a comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation. This is informed in a large part by, and through economic, diplomatic and people-to-people relations.

Information in the public domain shows China has become Zimbabwe’s most important international ally, with the Asian giant providing economic cooperation through trade, investments, technical and bilateral assistance and support for social sectors such as education and health.

Currently, the biggest foreign investments in Zimbabwe are Chinese. Zimbabwe enjoys increasing positive trade with China, while the Asian giant has assisted the country in infrastructural development in the fields of energy, transport, communications, health, all topped up with a magnificent new Parliament Building located in the new capital at Mt Hampden. China also provides water infrastructure and health support services as well as agriculture training programmes for Zimbabwe.

In the security sector, China has supported Zimbabwe’s army and police with hardware and skills while the two sides are also cooperating in emerging security frontiers, including tackling threats to peace and security and cyber security. China also has a programme to assist Zimbabwe combat drugs and narcotics.

In the field of human development, China trains Zimbabwean students and Government officials through scholarships and learning opportunities and has assisted thousands of personnel, while more are in the pipeline in th coming years. Chinese tourists to Zimbabwe are rising each year, which is not just good for the economy but also increase cultural bonds, which are being promoted through arts, language and sport. At the same time, a rising crop of Chinese philanthropists and donors – mostly businessmen and their wives – have become important players in supporting communities and the vulnerable in society as they share love with Zimbabweans.

This summary gives a picture of the comprehensive nature of China-Zimbabwe relations, made more important against the background of punitive and exclusionary  sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe by Western countries led by the United States of America.

Towards United Front of China-Africa liberation parties and ideological ties

A critical piece in the China-Zimbabwe relationship is politics; with the Communist Party of China and Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe enjoying close bonds of friendship. That also includes the respective armies, People’s Liberation Army and the Zimbabwe National Army.

At political level the two sides have cooperated on important scores bilaterally and on global stage, leading to Zimbabwe supporting China on its core interests such as the One China Principle. Zimbabwe has become a member and beneficiary of China’s global networks crafted around the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and lately, the Global Civilisation Initiative. Zimbabwe has also benefited from the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) framework, which has a number of benefits. Later this year, Zimbabwe will participate in the FOCAC Summit in Beijing.

The consolidation of China’s historical relations with African in general and Zimbabwe is an important development ideologically and pragmatically.

China continues to support Zimbabwe’s political consciousness and growth, on the basis that learning from China and applying to local conditions could uplift Africans in the new era.

Just like during the liberation struggles.

Just like the teachings of Chairman Mao.

The two Governments and political parties undertake various exchanges with China ever willing to share lessons learned over the past, particulary its modernisation path that saw it transform rapidly from a poor country to the current world’s largest economy by some metrics, and set to overtake America by 2050.

An important feature of the new China-Africa relations is the setting up of ideological schools to groom the next generation of leaders.

The CPC and African liberation parties in Tanzania, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola last year made a key step to establish these schools, leading to a $40 million political training school debuting in Tanzania.

Zimbabwe is currently constructing a similar school named Herbert Chitepo Ideological College, something the ruling Zanu-PF has long mooted.

In Tanzania the Nyerere Leadership School is the first political school the CCP has built overseas, a bold move by a party that often denies that it promotes its political system abroad. The school enables the CCP to proselytize and methodically share its governance model.

The cluster of African liberation movements and the CPC crystallises the united front. – and it will have massive benefits and spin offs.

According to one China-Africa scholar, Paul Nantulya, “The CCP (Communist Party of China has) capitalized on an opportunity to relocate some of its political and ideological programs to Africa.”

He explains that the liberation parties in those countries are focused on supporting one another to preserve their rule against perceived threats.

Further, according to the Ugandan scholar, with the assistance of China, like-minded revolutionary parties in Africa are seen forming a “United Front” (tongyi zhanxian; 统一战线)—a Chinese strategy that mobilizes support outside the CPC and around the world to advance China’s interests and isolate its adversaries.

Nantulya authoritatively outlines that as ideological school syllabi give priority to synthesizing the CPC’s overall experience to local conditions, what is meant when the two sides speak of “strengthening the sharing of experience in political governance.”  At the same time, students learn the history of their liberation struggles, the CPC and Chinese experience, and the current state of liberation parties. Party recruitment, management, administration, mass mobilization, leadership, and propaganda systems are also taught with the help of CPC resource persons.

The establishment of the local ideological school and continued close relations between Zimbabwe and China, which Ambassador Zhou Ding described, signify something the sheer strength, depth and unending potential of the two countries’ cooperation.

Fani Zvomuya is an associate researcher with Ruzivo Media & Resource Centre, think tank that researches global and local issues.