The Chinese have penetrated almost every economic sector in Zimbabwe including mining, energy, real estate, transport, tourism, agriculture, telecommunications and media. There are more than 80 state-owned Chinese enterprises operating in Zimbabwe, and China amassed a total of $10.45bn in investments and contracts in the country between 2005 and 2020.
The Sino-Africa relationship has blossomed to the point where China has become almost omnipresent in Africa. But the relationship between the two parties was not an overnight event. It was forged during the heady days of the 1960s and 70s anti-colonial struggles in Africa when China lent moral and material support to a number of liberation movements in countries such as Algeria, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
China’s role in the liberation struggles in various African countries remains a key source of legitimacy for the Sino-African relationship — at least in the eyes of the African leaders. One of the liberation movements to benefit from China’s sympathy and support was the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). China provided Zanu’s military wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), with ideological support, material assistance and military training in the 1960s when the liberation movement in Zimbabwe decided to take up arms against the white minority regime.
The current Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa is reported to have led the first five Zanu members sent to China in 1963 for six months’ military training. Even the iconic Zanla commander, Josiah Magama Tongogara, was trained in mobilising the masses, military strategy and tactics at the Nanjing Academy in Beijing in 1966.
China also sent military instructors from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to train Zanla soldiers in Mgagao training camp in Tanzania. It was from these encounters that Mao Zedong’s guerilla tactics, the importance of peasant mobilisation and concepts such as “people’s army” and “people’s war” were drilled into Zanu cadres. China’s decision to assist Zanu was not entirely altruistic, but was partly motivated by the need to find its footing in southern Africa to contain the Soviet influence during the Sino-Soviet conflict of the 1960s. It paid off handsomely for China as Zanu’s armed struggle helped force the white minority government to accept democratic elections. Zanu-PF went on to win the elections in 1980 and assumed power in Zimbabwe, marking the demise of colonial rule.
When it assumed power at the end of white minority rule in April 1980, diplomatic relations were promptly established between the two countries, beginning the first phase of the post-independence China-Zimbabwe relationship.
Blessing-Miles Tendi, in his book The Army and Politics in Zimbabwe, described the bilateral ties between China and Zimbabwe as “weakened without friction” in the first two decades of independence (1980-2000). This period saw exchanges of high-level visits with the late former president Robert Mugabe visiting China not less than six times. Zimbabwe received then Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang in 1983 and former president Jiang Zemin in 1996 among other high-level officials from China.
As gestures of friendship, China built Zimbabwe’s National Sports Stadium in the 1980s and also extended a modest amount of loans ($26-million in 1980, $33-million in 1983, $25-million in 1987 and $9.8-million in 1993) to aid development in the newly independent country. However, these loans paled into insignificance compared with the loans sourced from the West (World Bank, $417.3-million; the European Economic Community, $156-million; and Sweden, $204-million).
Hence, while having helped usher in independence, China played a rather subdued economic role in the first 20 years of post-colonial rule in Zimbabwe.
China had just emerged from the Mao era in the late 1970s and entered into the reform era led by Deng Xiaoping during which ideology took a back seat in its relations with other countries. However, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) ideological influence during the liberation was visible in Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader Robert Mugabe’s Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, even though he applied it to a limited extent policy-wise. Zanu-PF’s strong countryside support, its desire for a one-party state and heavy-handed suppression of dissent were perhaps some of the enduring elements imparted by the CPC cadres that shaped Zanu-PF’s approach to governance.
It would take the coincidence of China’s “Going Out” policy in the late 1990s and a dramatic turn of events in Zimbabwe to usher in the second phase of the relationship between the two countries.
By 2002, in the aftermath of the controversial Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP), Zimbabwe was completely isolated by the West and had been slapped with targeted economic and political sanctions by the European Union (EU), Australia, Canada and the United States. The sanctions were based on allegations of human rights abuses perpetrated by the government of Zimbabwe.
The country was also suspended from the Bretton Woods Institutions — the World Bank in 2000 and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2003 — for failing to pay the arrears to its debts. Failing to access credit lines from the Bretton Woods Institutions and nursing a decimated agricultural sector, Zimbabwe plunged into a catastrophic economic decline which saw its gross domestic product shrink by almost 50% by 2008.
It was in this grim situation that Zimbabwe announced the “Look East Policy” (LEP) in 2003, aiming to cultivate close relations with East Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, India, Indonesia and especially China for economic and diplomatic salvation.
In his 2005 Independence Day speech at the National Sports Stadium in the capital Harare, Robert Mugabe was quoted as saying “we have turned east where the sun rises and given our backs to the west where the sun sets”. He said this as “newly acquired Chinese jet fighters screamed over the Chinese-built stadium to emphasise his policy of friendship with Asian powers”. Mugabe reminisced how China stood with Zanu-PF during the liberation struggle, suggesting that China was a genuine friend, unlike the West.
China wasted no time in filling the vacuum left by the West in Zimbabwe. The Chinese have since penetrated almost every economic sector in Zimbabwe including mining, energy, real estate, transport, tourism, agriculture, telecommunications and media. There are more than 80 state-owned Chinese enterprises operating in Zimbabwe.
According to the Global Investment Tracker published by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), China amassed a total of $10.45-billion in investments and contracts in Zimbabwe between 2005 and 2020. With almost $3-billion in loan commitments to Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2018, China has become Zimbabwe’s biggest lender.
Some of the largest investment projects China has bankrolled in Zimbabwe include the Hwange Thermal Power Plant ($1.2-billion), Kariba South Hydropower project ($320-million) and $219-million for the upgrade of state-owned mobile telecom NetOne.
Between 2000 and 2014, Zimbabwe was the second-highest recipient of Chinese Official Development Assistance (ODA) across Sub-Saharan Africa with a total of 71 (5.4%) of social, production and economic projects worth $1.79-billion. Among other manifestations of close ties include China’s construction of the $98-million National Defence College in 2013, Chinese company Shanghai Construction Group building a new $140-million parliament complex and the awarding of the largest diamond concessions to two Chinese companies, Anjin and Jinan, in Zimbabwe’s Marange diamonds fields in 2011.
Zimbabwe and China also cooperate on a cultural level. In 2006, the University of Zimbabwe launched the Confucius Institute of Zimbabwe funded by the Chinese Ministry of Education in a bid to promote Chinese culture and language in Zimbabwe. The Institute offers a six-level course in Chinese languages and has seen more than 5,000 students enrol and produced more than 2,000 graduates since 2007.
Zimbabwe and China have also strengthened educational ties. A Chinese company, the Hengshun Zhongsheng Group, has been funding the Zimbabwean Presidential Scholarship Programme to send 50 students every year to study in Chinese universities.
At a geopolitical level, China vetoed the resolution of the UN Security Council sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2007 that had been supported by the US, Britain and France. Although China has stressed its principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, Zanu-PF and the CPC still maintain relations at a party-to-party level. Zanu-PF leaders frequently visit China for workshops on party building and economic development.
Thus, the China-Zimbabwe relationship, itself a microcosm of the broader China-Africa relationship, is strongly rooted in the bonds created during the anti-colonial struggle. Liberation movements have played an instrumental role in facilitating and promoting China-Africa relations.
The CPC’s investment in liberation movements when they had nothing to offer has today yielded multiple returns for China in the form of geopolitical support at the global level and access to Africa’s abundant natural resources. In retrospect, as the CPC celebrates 100 years of existence in July 2021, its alignment with the decolonisation movement may have been one of its best decisions. DM