ZIMBABWE – Starting on Tuesday, the visit comes nearly two decades after Zimbabwe last hosted a Chinese head of state.
The excitement is understandable as Mugabe has been isolated for more than a decade by the international community. Western governments have kept sanctions on him and his ruling elite since 2001, wary of the deteriorating human rights and political situation in Zimbabwe.
As a result, international leaders of the standing of Jinping, who leads a global economic powerhouse, have avoided the 91-year-old Mugabe, who is known to revel in hogging the international spotlight.
Isolated, Mugabe in the past decade has had to make do with playing host to leaders from the Southern African Development Community who have often jetted into Harare for mediation talks to avoid a spillover of Zimbabwe’s political and economic troubles across their borders.
To counter the SADC interventions and the bitter fallout with the West, Zimbabwe has been pursuing a “Look East” policy – to China’ s advantage.
In the corridors of power, China is often described as Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”. Ties between the two countries date from the armed struggle of the late ’70s, and this is often cited by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF as a sign of deep camaraderie.
However, it seems historical ties will have little bearing when Mugabe stands shoulder to shoulder with Jinping.
Mugabe’s government is faced with an unprecedented economic collapse marked by low industry capacity utilisation of 34%, company closures, 25000 job cuts so far this year and a persistent liquidity crunch, all of which leave him desperate for Chinese help to kick-start an economic turnaround.
Revenues are also shrinking for Harare, which on Thursday announced a budget of $3.85-billion (about R55-billion) for 2016, marginally lower than the $3.9-billion this year.
Mugabe is confident that Jinping will provide the solution he needs.
“We actually await the visit with very great interest … we shall be discussing some of the projects and programmes we would want China to assist us in undertaking,” he told journalists on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Turkey this month. “It’s more than the visit of the Chinese head of state that is very important to us; we will discuss programmes of co-operation.”
Last year, trade between Harare and Beijing was at $1.24-billion, up from $562-million in 2010. Exports from Zimbabwe to China last year were at $840-million, while imports from China stood at $414-million.
Chinese investment in Zimbabwe is among the highest in Africa. The Chinese have a dominant footprint in almost every major economic sector in the country, including agriculture, mining, tourism, energy, aviation and construction.
Despite sinking its claws into Zimbabwe’s economy, China remains guarded over pouring in billions of dollars in foreign direct investment.
Mugabe’s own economic rescue package, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation, needs $27-billion in funding – two years after its launch it is dormant due to a lack of funds.
The delay by China in opening its purse does not bode well for Mugabe, who faces an election in less than three years. He has made it clear he intends to stand for re-election in 2018, when he will be 94, but he needs some tangible economic successes during his present tenure to parade before voters.
It has become evident that with no foreign direct investment inflows from elsewhere, China’s deep pockets could play a part in determining Mugabe’s political future.
Eldred Masunungure, a political science professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said this week that China’s apprehension was also informed by the scale of infighting in Zanu-PF, fuelled by the lack of a successor.
“China may be a good friend, but it can’t be blind to the fact that Mugabe does not have a succession plan and he is more than 90 years old.
“The Chinese will want political predictability … Jinping will happily point [out] that every 10 years there is leadership renewal in China, which gives the system in-built predictability. This he is likely to stress again so that Mugabe should do something about it before funding is given to Zimbabwe.”
UK-based lawyer Alex Magaisa said hopes that Jinping would give Zimbabwe a rescue package were far-fetched.
“Will he rescue Zimbabwe? … China has had ample opportunity to help Zimbabwe if it wanted to. The Chinese are just as business-minded as the West, and they will not sink their money into a dark and uncertain hole. We must also recall that Zimbabwe has been playing truant with China in debt repayment, so our creditworthiness is weak. China will be as cautious as the rest of the world.”