Zimbabwe: What kind of partner is China?

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THE transformation of China began in the same year that Zimbabwe gained Independence. China was emerging from decades of turbulence under the leadership of Mau Tse Tung and the Chinese Communist Party and Zimbabwe from 30 years of conflict and war. On a per capita basis, the average Zimbabwean was earning about double his Chinese counterpart. 
China had no real friends in the world – no foreign aid, no working relationship with the multilateral financial system. Zimbabwe had many powerful friends who wanted to help the new country succeed. In the next decade Zimbabwe was able to borrow the equivalent of its GDP at concessionary terms, in addition it received a great deal of direct foreign aid – perhaps as much a billion dollars a year. Its leadership was feted across the globe.
China tackled its challenges using its internal strengths – a massive domestic market, a centralized system of Government and a powerful army that took orders. It had little else, it was a pariah State in global terms, its vast population poor and uneducated and knowing little of the outside world apart from the “closed kingdom” that was home.
Just like Zimbabwe, the new Chinese leadership came out of prison and into power, but they adopted very different economic paths. The Chinese chose pragmatism as their main policy principle; “If you are crossing a river and cannot see the bottom, use your feet to feel the rocks in your path to the other side”. The consequences were startling and took everyone in the world by surprise – the Chinese horse left the starting gates at a run and never stopped.
Today the average Chinese still earns a modest $3500 a year, but in doing so, because of the size of its population, it now has the second largest economy in the world. Its achievements are startling but hide the fact that China is still a poor country – people living in Botswana and Zambia have a higher average standard of living. But like India, its middle class is growing and is already among the largest in the world.
Among other startling facts, China has one of the fastest growing Christian populations on earth and possibly is now more “Christian” than Europe – France is perhaps the most godless State in the world today. But China is still a “Communist State”, highly centralized politically and tightly controlled through an elite that has grown up in the Communist Party and owes allegiance to it for everything. Advertisement

Zimbabwe now claims China as a friend and supporter; more than that, as a partner. But what kind of partner will China be? The image that is emerging is not pretty. What we see of China is a massive embassy, closed and secretive, Chinese contractors working on contracts that they have secured through political contacts, over-priced and in some cases poorly executed. Loans that are not concessional and whose repayment terms are as tough as any money lender. 
We see growing evidence of connivance with the local political elite in a variety of nefarious activities – the manipulation of elections, support for a criminal political elite, the systematic looting of the Marange diamond discovery for their own ends with virtually no benefits at all to the people of Zimbabwe – a totally cynical and self-serving approach to our economic relationship. There is no humanitarian or bilateral aid in this relationship and little sign of any commitment to universal, fundamental human and political rights.
Am I being too tough on the Chinese? I do not think so. That is the impression we have and that is the reality of our daily experience. Now with the latest exchange involving the State visit to China by our head of State, the relationship is suddenly on a new footing. Zanu PF would want us to believe that the visit raised the Zimbabwe flag higher in China and marked a deepening of an already mature political and economic relationship. I think they are misleading us and even more dangerously, may be misleading themselves.
Firstly there is the myth that China has a vested interest in our natural resources. That is simply not true. Our agricultural resources are very difficult to manage and with our variable and uncertain rainfall, they require good management and significant investment before they can become productive. I understand that the Congo has offered China 8 million hectares of land for use to grow food and other agricultural products – that is a much more attractive option.
As far as minerals are concerned we have little of strategic value to the Chinese. If they invested in platinum they would have to use South African technology to extract value – like anyone else. Our huge iron ore deposits are low grade and with world prices at a very low level, simply not worth the trouble. Our chrome is difficult to mine and a long way from markets and, anyway, we do not have the electrical energy to process the ore locally. Little else remains except gold and diamonds and they do not have any strategic importance. 
Politically we are a liability; we are one of the political polecats of the world with little or no influence and standing. Why take on our problems when you have enough of your own? Why spend money on a failed State who can never pay you back? From an investment point of view, who would invest in a country where its own citizens are taking money out of the system and no one else seems willing to take the risk. If a sure fire deal presents itself with no competition and a guarantee of payment with a decent profit for themselves – why not? But that sort of deal does not constitute a commitment. 
So why did China give Mr. Mugabe such a warm welcome? He got the full treatment – the President welcomed him at the airport, he had a red carpet and all the bells and whistles. There must have been a motive and the only one that I can think of is that they were setting him up to let him down – which they did in grand style and without loss of face.
We have no idea of just what was said in the closed meetings but we can imagine and my own version goes like this: They had three questions for the Zimbabweans:

Just who are we dealing with here? We hear you are likely to be succeeded by several – perhaps a dozen, completely different individuals. We do not like uncertainly, please resolve this issue before we go any further;
Your economic policies are not attracting investment – why do you think we should invest where no one else is willing to accept the risk?
We cannot be your only friend in the world, China is trying to be a friend to every State in the world, please repair and restore your relationship with the Western Nations, so that China does not act alone diplomatically. 

I am sure that Mr. Mugabe did not have an answer to any one of those questions and came home to a country whose crisis had suddenly become more difficult to resolve. I am not surprised the Politburo met on Wednesday this week and that the meeting lasted 10 hours. They have some decisions to take and none of them is an easy choice. 
Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on his website