Zim-China relations: separating fact from fib

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By Fani Ndoro

Recently, a publisher and owner of a media empire in Zimbabwe wrote an opinion piece in one of his newspapers titled, “Zimbabwe’s Chinese problem”.

The article – to all intents and purposes – was shockingly bald on facts but heavily clad with unfortunate misrepresentations, prejudice, xenophobia and racism.

While it is not clear what the exact intentions and motivations behind the author of the article were, one can only conclude that the publisher sought to use and abuse his influence and power as publisher and journalist to foist a personal worldview that is so incendiary as to go beyond fair comment or commentary. In In this endeavor, he threw away some key tenets of journalism, that hold, among other things, that comment should be fair and balanced; opinion based on fact; and that media should not be used to spread hate, xenophobia and racism.

Every student of contemporary media and journalism is taught how, for example, in Rwanda the media was used to fan a genocide that ended up with the death of at least one million people in a month. With its immense power, media should always be tempered with responsibility, even in the most liberal of societies. Information in the public domain, especially by opinion leaders, should be in the public interest not narrow and bigoted as well as endanger certain sections of society, especially minorities.

The article in question claimed, inter alia, that the Zimbabwe-China relationship was an “exploitative relationship with benefits flowing mostly to the Chinese and their Zimbabwean enablers”; and that it was akin to Western slave trade an slavery. The writer further proclaimed that  history was now being repeated and that,  “Instead of Europe and the Americans, the Chinese are the new masters”.

The article claimed that on supposedly “present evidence”, it was “difficult to argue against the notion that China’s exploitation of our natural resources and labour have contributed significantly to the impoverishment of Zimbabwe”.

The author did not proffer any evidence to back up these claims, but pointed out the fact that of the 10 000 Chinese nationals in the country, 33 Chinese companies held lithium mining licences alone, which according to the writer, meant that “Chinese influence far exceeded their numerical presence”.

The article and its bald claims cannot be left unchallenged, first on these key points, in the public interest. The second imperative is to make correct and factual assessment and analysis based on the mere fact that Zimbabwe and China are not just historically linked, but are members of the global family of nations that  cannot live without each other. There is thus the need to ascertain fact from fib to help stakeholders to be better informed.

This article, in response to the offending article, adopts three main approaches as analytical matrices to unpack the Zimbabwe-China relationship and its significance and implications; namely, historical, geopolitical and economic.

A shared history, a shared future

Zimbabwe and China share strong historical bonds which emanate from shared and similar historical circumstances and affinities. The two countries share a history of imperialism and colonisation, and were once both colonized by Britain. China further faced a repeated cycle of invasions, humiliations and colonisation by a range of powers, including those from the East. These lessons have taught modern China to pursue a different path after its own Independence in 1949, and lately during its much-improved circumstances of being a global power economically and militarily.

China, which has never colonized anyone before, has stated that it does not seek hegemony or to dominate or subjugate others. Its own rise and development have been through peaceful development and peaceful coexistence with countries of the world. The latest philosophy in Beijing is that of pursuing “a community of a shared future for mankind” while its engagement with Africa, which has been put forth by President Xi Jinping, is based on “sincerity, real results, amity and good faith”.

Historically, China assisted African countries, including Zimbabwe, to gain independence from Western powers, and provided military training and support that was critical in ensuring liberation for countries such as Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

China’s contribution to Africa’s liberation, and economic independence came at a great sacrifice considering that over 50 years ago, it was a much poorer country but managed to share its resources in supporting the anti-colonial struggles, and early infrastructure development through the construction of the TAZARA railway in east and central Africa, for example.

When Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, China became one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with the former British colony, and contributed to infrastructural development through the construction of the National Sports Stadium, while it also sent its medical corps, the China Medical Team, in the very early years of Zimbabwe’s independence. Given its contribution towards Zimbabwe’s liberation cause, China should have found it easy to demand compensation. It didn’t. In fact, Zimbabwe made its own economic and diplomatic choices that did not quite favour China at the time but predicated on finding favour with Western countries and their liberal and so-called free-market economic models such as the Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (which were not successful).

Two decades later, when Zimbabwe was slapped by punitive economic sanctions by Western countries such as America, Britain and the European Union for embarking on the land reform programme that corrected historical injustices, the country turned to China for support and assistance through the Look East Policy, which was essentially predicated on China.

China obliged with open arms.

The Asian giant replied to Zimbabwe with an updated friendship package to ensure Zimbabwe’s economic independence through infrastructure support, loans and foreign direct investment; all of which had been denied Zimbabwe by the West. Demonstrably, China supported Zimbabwe’s economy, including the agriculture sector, at a time Western countries wanted to kill off the economy through denial of markets, equipment, finance, skills, investments and so forth. Western countries had even blocked aid and global assistance and funding towards fighting HIV and tuberculosis, which were killing Africans in numbers.

Some key assistance and cooperation packages that China extended to Zimbabwe to date include:

  • Hwange thermal and Kariba South hydro power stations, which have increased Zimbabwe’s energy capacity and cost a combined US$1.9 billion;
  • The National Pharmaceutical Warehouse, one of the largest in Southern Africa built on 13700 square metres and has a 10 000 pallet capacity. It cost US$22m;
  • New Parliament building, constructed by a grant of US$270 million;
  • The Robert Mugabe International Airport, which has modernised the facility, increased it’s capacity and ensured ease of travel. It cost US$153 million;
  • The NetOne Mobile Broadband Expansion project, costing US$71 million, which will ensure up to 87 percent coverage of internet countrywide following the completion of the current Phase 3;
  • The US$6 million High Performance Computing Centre, which enables the country to harness data for complex tasks, including weather and climate forecasting key to agriculture

All these projects have contributed to ther sectors upstream, downstream and middle of the stream. China has offered loans at concessional rates to allow for key infrastructure.

Throughout these years, China has also assisted Zimbabwe during humanitarian catastrophes such as the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the country to import vaccines at a time Western countries were hoarding the crucial medicines and not providing support to African countries like Zimbabwe.

President Xi actually declared COVID-19 vaccines global public goods and began by donating to Zimbabwe, which received most medicines in Africa per capita as well as protective wear and technical assistance. China has also built medical facilities and schools and children’s homes. It also assisted Zimbabwe during the Cyclone Idai Disaster. Further, China has drilled over 1200 boreholes in poor rural and urban communities for people to access clean water and fight thirst and waterborne disease.

On this present evidence, there is nothing to compare China’s relationship with Zimbabwe with that of slavery or colonialism under Western powers. It is not just ahistorical to say so, but also the height of mischief and bad faith. In word and in deed, China has not shown that it is intent on colonising Zimbabwe or any part of Africa; or at the very least, demand compensation for its historical good deeds.

China and Africa’s history, in fact, predate European contact, with Zimbabwe and China having recorded contact dating back to 600 years when the Munhumutapa and Qing Dynasty had trade relations. In between there has been a historical continuum and evolution of diplomatic and economic exchanges.

In 2024, is China wrong to take advantage of economic opportunities in Africa, including Zimbabwe, using its historical proximity and its current capacity whereby its rich citizens are able to do business anywhere in the world? This article will substantively answer this in detail below.

Geopolitics: Partnerships and remaking world order

There is one key area that demonstrates that Zimbabwe/Africa relations with China are mutual and far removed from the exploitative basis of erstwhile colonisers: this is how the countries have supported each other on the global stage based on common interests and principles.

As an independent country, Zimbabwe has supported China in a consistent and principled manner, and has expressed support for the One China Policy, which is a globally acknowledged key international relations, and the two countries have supported each other at international forums including at the United Nations where China in 2008 used its veto powers at the Security Council to block a resolution that would allow Western countries to literally invade the southern African country. This was the only time China invoked its veto for a matter of an African country – and that is a key historical moment.

At multilateral level China has included Zimbabwe in its own initiatives such as the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (Focac) as well as Belt and Road, Global Development and Global Security Initiatives. It is critical to point out that Western countries have consistently snubbed Zimbabwe in their engagement with Africa, with key examples being America’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). Americans and Europeans have largely excluded Zimbabwe in their engagements and Summits with Zimbabwe.

Today, Zimbabwe is struggling to get readmission to the Commonwealth – a club of Britains’s former colonies – because of residual resentment against Zimbabwe in some Western quarters. Not that Zimbabwe would derive much, anyway, from the Commonwealth. On the other hand, China has welcomed Zimbabwe in its networks and initiatives at multilateral level where other African and developing countries meet.

Later this year, Zimbabwe will participate at the Focac Summit in Beijing. This does not in any way demonstrate the so-called slave relationship. It is a gross exaggeration and an insult to intelligence to state that. At the same time, it is sad and almost criminal to try to whitewash Western history of murderous imperialism and colonialism by drawing false equivalences.

Western colonisation and the economy it ran was neither glorious nor sustainable. It is unfortunate that some believe that Western colonisation and its economic models were good and God-sent. They were not, simple!

Colonisation left a legacy of debt, wrong models and bad laws – some unreformed to this day, which African governments need to be criticized for maintaining. Continued interest in African countries by the West is based on the desire to take advantage of African countries and to revive old structures and political economy. This is not being achieved because circumstances have evolved much, and because China presents a different proposition; and this is seen as competition which China is winning against its global power counterparts.

Many critics of China actually hate it on behalf of the Americans whether consciously or unconsciously. At the same time, Sinophobia, first cultivated in the West whereby Chinese people face xenophobia and racism, has been an ongoing problem and it is unfortunate that some people who should know better resort to this baser instinct.

Ironically, both Africans and Asians are victims of racism by white people, which should be a cause for unity of the oppressed races rather than internalization and perpetuation.

Opportunities, mutual benefits and untapped potential

Zimbabwe is a developing country rich in natural resources and a largely untapped potential, including human capital.

The country has over 40 commercially exploitable minerals, including critical minerals for new energy materials such as lithium. The value of the unmined assets has not fully been ascertained but runs into billions, or even a trillion. However, Zimbabwe has not yet had capacity to utilise all and investment in the sector was curtailed by years of sanctions which prevented the country from accessing capital, FDI and tools.

In recent years, Chinese investors have come with money and machines to assist the country to exploit the resources, thereby bringing in revenues in taxes and capital as well as providing jobs for locals.

The Chinese have assisted the country improve its outputs in gold, diamonds, chrome and lately lithium. This has seen mining become a top economic contributor. Added to this, machinery and appropriate technologies brought by the Chinese have empowered locals in the extractive sector to be more efficient from digging from the ground, haulage by transport and refining. Interestingly, many artisinal and small-scale miners who produce the most gold or are tributaries to production of chrome, are equipped with Chinese tools, not American, British, German or European implements.

To the extent that lithium is a mineral in demand, Zimbabwe has dozens of other commercially exploitable minerals that anyone can mine viably. It is thus questionable why anyone would begrudge Chinese investments in the one sector, even then parting with millions of dollars to set up operations – that money going into Zimbabwean Fiscus.

Further, China has assisted Zimbabwe in building economic enabler that range from power plants in Hwange and Kariba; transport, through the upgrade of airports; and communications through the expansion of broadband internet infrastructure. All these developments are benefiting Zimbabweans and enabling economic activity and modernization.

All this has been unacknowledged in the criticism of China.

Open for business

It has to be stated without fear of contradiction that if Chinese people are taking up opportunities in Zimbabwe, it is because they are free to do so,  Zimbabwe’s clarion call being that the country is open for business, which was one of the earliest mantras of the Second Republic under President Mnangagwa. Statistics from the Zimbabwe Investment Development Agency (Zida) indicate that China is Zimbabwe’s biggest source of FDI, beating a combined competition of other countries such as the US, Britain, Canada and Saudi Arabia. This year, Chinese companies are set to invest more than US$4 billion while the prospective investment from other countries is less than half a billion.

Locals and foreigners alike could – and should – invest, but some countries and nationalities that otherwise would have invested in Zimbabwe, including in the lithium sector, have been constrained by sanctions and their attendant problems -such as high risk country profile and economic instability.

The Chinese should be welcomed and commended for taking the risk of investing in Zimbabwe, a country under sanctions, which no one would want to venture into. It is on record, too, that some Chinese companies operating in Zimbabwe have been put under sanctions for merely supporting the local economy – the case of Anjin, a Chinese miner which was put under US sanctions a decade ago.

The two developing countries – resource rich Zimbabwe and a resource-hungry China undergoing massive development have been reliant on, and mutually reinforcing of, each other. Ordinarily, Zimbabwe as the host country and FDI destination should set the rules of engagement and enforce investment, environmental and other laws and regulations. The country is actually saddled with a number of archaic colonial-era laws that need to be updated and evolved to ensure maximum benefit for locals. These are laws that actually favoured previous foreign and local white investors and the Chinese have not demanded anything new. In fact, the local embassy and the Chamber of Chinese Enterprises in Zimbabwe – a grouping of close to 100 large Chinese investors – has called on authorities to enforce relevant laws; and not protect wrongdoers. The CCEZ in 2022 produced a 9-point manual for Chinese companies to abide by, largely to respect local laws and regulations, as well as respect local traditions and areas. The deficiencies in our laws, and corruption used to circumvent and defeat best practices cannot be entirely be blamed on the Chinese. One cannot also not be selective when talking about negative effects of investments, because Western investors also left a trail of destruction and scars on the biophysical environment; as well as harms to persons, including through exploitation, brutality and unsafe conditions. Zimbabwe continues to face consequences of this era, including ghost towns and disused mines left by Western capital. These facts underline the basic fact that capitalists are not saints, but could be tamed by strong legislation and enforcement.

Lastly, the growth of trade relations between China and Zimbabwe, point to mutually reinforcing relationship . In 2023 trade between the two countries reached a record US$3.2 billion, with Zimbabwe enjoying surplus of US$307 million. China also opened its economy to more Zimbabwean products such as citrus, macadamia, avocado; etc. this is on top of the minerals and tobacco, the country’s major revenue earners. On the other hand, China continues to send more high quality products as well as ordinary goods from electronics to footwear, which have all improved livelihoods of Zimbabweans.

The relationship between Zimbabwe and China is by no means perfect, but the imperfections cannot be sensationally and maliciously equated to slavery, imperialism or colonialism.

The writer is an associate researcher and contributor with Ruzivo Media and Resource Centre, a local think tank.