China’s changing relationship with Zimbabwe

Photo © visual.dichotomy/ flickr

Q&A with Dr. Zhang Chun of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies and Dr. Abiodun Alao of King’s College London.

The scholarly and policy focus on China in Africa is beginning to move beyond the examination of the macro-trends to a more nuanced emphasis on sectoral and bilateral country studies.

These micro-studies underscore the emerging diversity of national, sub-national and private actors that increasingly populate the landscape of Chinese-African relations. At the same time that bilateral ties are experiencing a deepening, the continent and international context is itself undergoing significant changes that are reinforcing these trends in profound and sometimes troubling ways.

China’s ties with two African countries in particular, South Africa and Zimbabwe, are emblematic of the growing power of the relationship with the continent. This relationship now goes beyond the continued drive for resources to take in accelerating commercial dominance cemented by Chinese finance, the tightening of party-to-party relations, burgeoning forms of military cooperation, the broader impact of Chinese migration on society and even the ideological pull of the ‘Chinese model’ on elite thinking.

In the case of Zimbabwe, once hailed as a bastion of constitutional democracy, critics would argue that China’s engagement has contributed to hardening of the anti-democracy tendencies under Robert Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic rule. For instance, financing from China (whether state or private) has permitted off-budgetary latitude to ZANU-PF and notably the security sector, facilitating the entrenchment of the ‘deep state’ in Zimbabwe. At the same time, this is contrasted with the unheralded role Beijing played in facilitating the Global Political Agreement’s power sharing arrangements in 2008 and its own concerns – despite reported official exemptions – around arbitrary application of the ‘indigenisation policy’ by Zimbabwean government officials.

As part of a broader project on ‘China’s changing relationship with South Africa and Zimbabwe’, funded by the Foundation Open Society Institute (FOSI), SAIIA commissioned two experts to conduct a focussed study on China’s role in contemporary Zimbabwe.

Their research findings were published as two SAIIA Occasional Papers:

For more China-Africa materials, including videos and opinion pieces, click here.

Q&A with Dr. Zhang Chun

QUESTION: In your paper, you argue that the relationship between China and Zimbabwe is quite different from typical China–Africa interactions. What makes this relationship so unique?

Zhang: Africa has 54 countries, and the bilateral relations between China and each of these countries is unique. As a whole, China-Africa relations have gradually evolved from one pillar (political: 1956-mid 1990s) to two pillars (political, economic: mid 1990s-2010) and then 4 pillars (political, economic, social, peace and security: 2010s onwards). In contrast, the China-Zimbabwe relationship has been a multi-pillar one since its very beginning, while social connection a little bit weaker. It is this uniqueness that makes this relationship the potential pioneer of the China-Africa relationship as a whole, if handling well in the future.

QUESTION: Most observers are interested in the economic dimensions of China-Zimbabwe relations, claiming that financing from China has enabled Zimbabwe to circumvent Western demands for change in the country. In which sectors has China provided financial assistance to Zimbabwe?

Zhang: China’s support to Zimbabwe is mainly political, the amount of financial assistance is quite small. Chinese assistance is provided in those sectors related to ordinary peoples’ lives, for example health facilities, infrastructure, food, etc. The reason for this lies in the fact that the gloomy economic situation always threatens the ordinary people and not the regime. From the Zimbabwean government’s perspective, what is most needed is political support; and from the Zimbabwean people’s angle, what is most needed is support for their livelihoods, which is the entry point of Chinese financial assistance. However, given limited resources, such support is in fact quite limited.

QUESTION: Your paper also discusses dimensions of China-Zimbabwe ties that tend to be ignored, such as the medical assistance provided by China to Zimbabwean health facilities. What other elements of this relationship are rarely mentioned? And why do you think these issues do not feature in the public discourse?

Zhang: It is a natural tendency for human beings to simplify when faced with complicated realities. When Zimbabwe was a “honey baby” of the West, most analysis tended to ignore the dark side; now that things have changed, the majority tends to ignore the bright side. The China-Zimbabwe relationship has its bright and dark side; current literature provides in-depth analysis of the negative aspects of this relationship, but does not fully acknowledge the positive aspects, including for example, the provision of Chinese medical teams to Zimbabwe, health diplomacy, infrastructure assistance, people to people exchange, etc. A truly balanced understanding of this relationship requires the telling of the whole story.

QUESTION: Considering the way forward, what are the key challenges to enhancing this relationship? And more importantly for China, what opportunities have presented themselves over the past twelve months that would enable it to further develop its global strategic partnership network and upgrade its Africa strategy?

Zhang: The key challenge will be how to handle this relationship so as to address the changing political atmosphere at both domestic and international levels. Any relationship involves more than one party, and so how to nurture better mutual understanding and stronger mutual trust will be key. China has built strategic partnerships with many countries around the world. Its global strategic partnership network should simply be understood as an effort to streamline its engagement, and not an attempt to develop a competing model to the so-called coalition model adopted by traditional powers. Moreover, China always attaches great importance to policy continuity, and strategic partnership-building is but one part of a number of efforts it is undertaking to upgrade China’s Africa strategy.

Q&A with Dr. Charles Abiodun Alao

QUESTION: In your paper you note that the relationship between China and Zimbabwe has generated particular controversy given Zimbabwe’s domestic politics and the international reaction to them. Are concerns over Zimbabwe’s recourse to China for economic and diplomatic support as a means to resist condemnation of its domestic policies justified?

Alao: Of course this will be a matter of opinion. I think it is not justified. In my opinion, Zimbabwe should address the fundamental problem of governance that is currently confronting the country. The support from China, which is now drying up, will not save the government in the long run.

QUESTION: Zimbabwe’s economy is unstable, economic policy remains unpredictable, and FDI has not picked up as the government would have hoped. To what extent do you believe that financial assistance from China, such as the recently contracted external loan with Export-Import Bank of China for telecommunication network expansion, help alleviate the country’s fiscal woes?

Alao: As things are, Zimbabwe’s economy is not likely to recover as a result of any short therapy. China’s selective assistance is not likely to get the country out of its fiscal woes. The extent of the problem is beyond any Fire-brigade assistance.

QUESTION: Your paper illustrates the extensive involvement of China in Zimbabwe, from economic and commercial links, diplomatic relations, to the at times controversial military and security ties between the two countries. How has this involvement impacted on Zimbabwe’s domestic politics?

Alao: It has impacted on the domestic politics in a way, as it has given the government a sense of confidence that it can survive any sanction or opposition from the West. It has also given the Mugabe administration the confidence that no major criticism will come from the United Nations’ Security Council as a result of China’s veto.

QUESTION: You mention the little known role China played in ensuring that an agreement was signed between the Mugabe government and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2008. Are there opportunities for China to continue to play a positive role in assisting the Zimbabwean policymakers to promote development in their country?

Alao: In theory, China can still play this role, but in practice, the extent to which the Mugabe government would be receptive to any such attempt to reach an agreement with MDC has reduced significantly, especially now that the ZANU-PF government can rule without bringing in the MDC.

QUESTION: You note that most Zimbabweans find it difficult to be indifferent to China. Are the negative views on the impact of Chinese businesses on employment, the economy and commercial relations justified?

Alao: I believe that it is justified. The extent to which Chinese people in Zimbabwe, as indeed, many African countries violate human rights and flood market with low quality goods call for disquiet.

On 9 December 2014, SAIIA hosted a media briefing to discuss the second aspect of the research, focussing particularly on China’s Changing Relationship with South Africa from establishing official ties in 1998 to FOCAC 2015 based on research completed in 2014. For more information, click here.

7 Dec 2014