ZIMBABWE – These are boom times for China-Zimbabwe relations and there is no better evidence of this than President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to Harare which saw the signing of trade and investment deals worth $4 billion.
Harare erupted into euphoric scenes on Tuesday morning when thousands of jubilant Zimbabweans lined the road from the international airport to welcome President Xi.
China and Zimbabwe signed a total of 10 government-to-government agreements and two private sector deals to finance projects in energy, infrastructure and telecommunications.
Most of the $4bn is in the form of loans, and it is unclear how Zimbabwe, which already owes multilateral lenders $10.8bn, will repay the money. The government is currently under pressure to raise $1.8bn before April 2016 under an arrears-payment agreement that will unlock funding from the International Monetary Fund.
Energy deals, meant to solve Zimbabwe’s crippling electricity shortfall, were the major highlight. Sino Hydro Corporation was awarded a $1.4 billion contract to expand the largest coal-fired electricity generator, Hwange Thermal Power Station, adding 600 megawatts to the grid. Under the deal, to be financed by China Export and Import Bank, the Chinese firm will provide $1.2bn with Zimbabwe raising $200m. The project will begin in January and take 42 months to complete.
The same company clinched a $533 million contract to refurbish hydro-electric machinery at the world’s largest man-made dam, Lake Kariba.
President Robert Mugabe hailed the bilateral co-operation as a vindication of his “Look East” policy. Zimbabwe officially announced a “Look East” policy in 2003 following a fallout with the European Union and the United States over land reform, disputed elections and human rights violations.
“Today the whole world is looking east, including those who in 2000 chided us for that policy,” Mugabe said.
President Xi, speaking via an interpreter, praised Mugabe for resisting external interference, saying Sino-Zimbabwe relations were underpinned by “understanding, flexibility and empathy”.
“President Mugabe is a seasoned statesman and a founding father of Africa who is respected across the continent. In Chna, we also have the same people whom we hold in high regard,” Xi said.
Other agreements signed include the construction of a new parliament building, pharmaceutical warehouse, aviation co-operation, equipment for wildlife protection, technical co-operation and investment promotion, and an accord on the avoidance of double taxation. The private sector deals were between International Business of China and China Africa Sunlight Energy on development of coal and coal-bed methane gas and the construction of a 600 megawatt power station. The other deal was between AVM Africa Limited and Beijing Automobile Assembly for the assembly of buses and trucks.
Zimbabwe is the fourth African country that Xi has visited since taking office in November 2012, and only one of two nations he is visiting on the continent this year.
He said he is elated to host “the greatest friend we have in the international community.” Beijing and Harare will sign financial and technical assistance agreements in infrastructure development, transport, energy and agriculture.
Speaking in Harare, President Xi said China placed great importance on its friendship with Zimbabwe.
He thanked Mugabe for the pair of lions that he gave to China, saying the two felines had settled well and were much loved by the Chinese people.
Xi expressed hope that Mugabe, as chairman of the AU, would lead Africa “to new heights”.
China is now Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor, with investment reaching $601 million in 2013, surpassing the Asian nation’s investment in any other African country that year. In recent years, China has extended low-interest loans in excess of $1.5 billion. Bilateral trade volumes in the last five years reached $1.2 billion, which is double the figure last recorded in 2010.
Chinese companies have been contracted to undertake major projects in the country and are enjoying the rich pickings while Western corporations, barred by sanctions imposed by their own governments, can only watch from a distance.
Harare is teeming with Chinese company representatives on the hunt for investment opportunities.
But on the eve of President Xi’s trip to Harare, a leading member of Mugabe’s inner circle poked fun at some public perceptions surrounding this much-vaunted relationship.
Jonathan Moyo, a US-trained political scientist who often writes the ruling Zanu-PF’s election manifestoes, stoked debate when he wrote on his Twitter account: “It is said that Chinese businesspeople reap huge profits in Zimbabwe that within their circles they’ve nicknamed the country Sugarcane Mountain!”
It was a telling remark and another reminder that the Sino-Zimbabwe relationship is not as hunky-dory as Harare and Beijing would have the world believe.
And amid the euphoria triggered by the Chinese leader’s visit, words of caution have gained traction.
Fay Chung, a Zimbabwean of Chinese descent who played a key role in building Zimbabwe’s internationally acclaimed education system in the 1980s, has warned the country against falling victim to a new dependency syndrome.
She argues that Zimbabwe’s “Look East” policy should not just be about getting more money through foreign direct investment (FDI), but must focus more on values, skills and technology transfer.
“Partnerships must be based on knowledge and technology transfer, not merely on FDI. The development of the brains and values of Zimbabwe is key to the future,” she said.
Chung, a former two-time member of Mugabe’s post-independence cabinet who has also worked for the United Nations, recently launched her book, Zimbabwe Looking East, which explores the Sino-Zimbabwe relationship in insightful ways.
The former UN advisor notes that Zimbabwe was a major recipient of Western donor aid from independence in 1980 until the turn of the millennium when the money dried up, and says the country cannot afford Sino dependency.
However, the counter-narrative has been equally strong. Heather Chingono, a Harare-based international relations expert who speaks fluent Mandarin, said President Xi’s visit will enhance Zimbabwe’s profile as an investment destination. She said African nations have to be wary of scaremongers and Sinophobes who are bent on sowing seeds of discord.
Ahead of President Xi’s visit to Zimbabwe, Barry Sautman, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said those accusing China of a new form of “neo-colonialism” were being dishonest. Sautman argued that there was a vast difference between European colonialists who siphoned raw materials while under-developing Africa, and China, which is a “key builder of Africa’s infrastructure, the precursor to industrialisation”.
“There are also increasing numbers of Chinese-owned manufacturing plants in Africa. Our database of some 600 Chinese enterprises indicates that on average about 85percent of their employees are Africans, many of whom learn new skills relevant to industrialisation.”
He added: “The key characteristic of colonialism and neo-colonialism in Africa is in fact irrelevant to the Chinese presence in Africa: Europeans ruled the continent, making key decisions and waging wars of suppression against Africans.”
China’s soft power – a battle for hearts and minds
To the average person in Harare, Chinese nationals would not win a popularity contest.
Some Chinese businesspeople operating locally have earned a reputation for heavy-handedness. Stories abound of Zimbabwean workers being beaten up by their Chinese bosses for reporting late for duty, for instance. And the opaque operations of a Chinese mining company in the Marange diamond fields, amid reports that the alluvial mineral has been exhausted, have added to the general cynicism.
Beijing has sought to improve its public image through a soft-power strategy meant to show Zimbabweans that the dragon has a soft, charming underbelly.
In 2006, China opened a Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe to spearhead the teaching of Mandarin and the propagation of Chinese culture. Students are keen on mastering the language, seeing it as a passport to new horizons on the international job market.
A major milestone was recorded on November 20 when the Harare-based institute launched a Chinese-Shona dictionary. Shona is spoken by 80 percent of the Zimbabwean population.
Professor Pedzisai Mashiri, who heads the Confucius Institute, said the best way to strengthen bilateral relations was to have mutual cultural exchange: “The tendency has been to emphasize us learning Chinese without paying attention to the Chinese themselves learning our local languages. And so because of the amount of investment and the amount of interaction that is taking place between us and the Chinese, it will be productive and wise for them to start learning local languages.”
Some schools and teacher-training colleges, offshoots of the Confucius Institute, are offering Chinese language lessons. There are more than 400 Confucius Institutes in the world and the Harare-based institute is ranked among the top 40 for the quality of its programmes.
China’s projection of soft power is not confined to urban areas. The Asian giant has built a $6 million hospital in the heart of rural Mashonaland. Mahusekwa Hospital, also known as the China-Zimbabwe Friendship Hospital, has changed the lives of thousands of villagers who previously used to travel 30 kilometres to the nearest clinic.
Hospital administrator Charles Goredema says maternal mortality in the rural district has declined from 946 per 100 000 live births to 703 per 100 000 live births since the hospital opened. Mahusekwa Hospital is part of the 30 health centres China pledged to build, alongside 30 malaria control centres across Africa at the first summit of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (Focac) in 2006. Last year, the China Export and Import Bank extended Zimbabwe a $100 million loan to buy medical equipment for more than 100 health centres.
In international diplomacy, the two countries have been guided by a robust South-to-South solidarity that has often rattled Western powers. In 2004, Beijing and Harare collaborated at the UN Commission on Human Rights to block resolutions which would have seen both nations condemned for alleged human rights violations.
And the Zimbabwean government is forever grateful to China and Russia for vetoing, in 2008, a UN Security Council resolution sponsored by Britain and the US seeking to impose punitive international sanctions on Zimbabwe. President Mugabe said if the resolution had been adopted, it would have facilitated the violent invasion of Zimbabwe by Britain and its allies.
At a state banquet in honour of the visiting Chinese leader, Mugabe reminisced how China suppled Zimbabwean liberation fighters with guns to defeat the British settler regime. “We had a tough struggle against the British settlers and the Chinese assisted us with guns. Every year I went to China to say we need more guns and more guns were given until we attained our independence in April 1980,” said Mugabe.