Tag Archives: Zimbabwe

China And Zimbabwe: No Great Change In The Weather

WHATEVER WORD IS is used to describe the process of separating Zimbabwe’s long-serving president, Robert Mugabe, from power, China will have lost a long-standing political friend on the continent.

True, it may not cry too many tears over that, though it does like to be loyal to old comrades. But even Beijing will recognise that the 93-year old corrupt autocrat trying to establish a dynastic succession to his 52-year-old wife Grace is not the same man as the Marxist anti-colonialist they befriend as a young man.

However, Mugabe was an important champion for China in Africa after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960 and China trained and funded his Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) fighters when they were still a liberation movement.

Mugabe had visited Beijing as recently as last January, returning a state visit to Zimbabwe by President Xi Jinping in December 2015, on which occasion Xi described the two nations were “real all-weather friends.”

A high-level visit to Beijing between November 8 and November 10 by Zimbabwe’s army chief, General Constantine Chiwenga, only shortly before he and fellow generals moved against Mugabe, is raising some speculative questions. This Bystander doubts if there was a Chinese hand behind ousting Mugabe. If anything, a western one seems more probable.

Nonetheless, Chiwenga  who met both the PLA’s head of the joint chiefs of staff, Li Zuocheng, and defence minister Chang Wanquan, may have felt it important to inform Beijing of his intentions, given the close relations between the countries. Or it may have been a long-planned visit that would have looked suspicious to cancel at the last minute.

China has taken a neutral stance on events since, saying:

As a friendly country to Zimbabwe, we are closely following the situation unfolding in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s peace, stability, and development serve the fundamental interests of the country itself and other regional countries. It is also the common wish of the international community. We hope that Zimbabwe could properly handle its internal affairs.

State media has given prominence to voices calling for a stable transition of power.

If you follow the money, as this Bystander likes to do, you will see that Zimbabwe has as not been a recipient of Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) on anything like scale the friendship between the two countries would suggest. Xi during his 2015 visit pledged $4 billion of grants and loans over three years, part of a $60 billion package for the whole of Africa. That year, the figure had been $600m out of a total $929 million of FDI that Zimbabwe attracted.

That should be contrasted to the $2 billion that China invested in neighbouring Zambia . The Chinese investment in the struggling Zimbabwean economy has been going into power-generation infrastructure and agriculture, notably tobacco growing.

Total trade between the two countries is tiny: less than $400 million of Chinese exports to Zimbabwe, mostly machinery and equipment, some $720 million of imports, mostly tobacco, in 2016.  Zimbabwe barely makes the top 30 of China’s trading partners in Africa.

Mugabe may have been an old friend, but China has not been throwing much good money after bad in that particular direction for some time.

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Agri-Colonialism In Africa

Chinese agribusinesses are a familiar sight across Africa, not always one welcomed by locals, but a new scheme in Zimbabwe is proving particularly controversial. Under the so-called twinning program, investors from Hubei would be paired with farmers in Mashonaland East, one of the most fertile regions of Zimbabwe. The farmers would provide land and labor, the investors capital and equipment; the crops grown would be shipped to China.

It is unclear who would own the land. Some reports suggest the Chinese investors would be given all or some of the land, others that they would just own the farm business they operate on it. The twining program is a provincial government-to-provincial government agreement and the details have been kept quiet.

Provincial officials from Hubei have recently returned from a visit to Mashonaland East. Much of the land in question was originally taken from white farmers in 2000 after independence and redistributed to friends of the regime regardless of whether they had any experience of agriculture. Since independence Zimbabwe’s once-prosperous farming based economy has collapsed, with the country facing food shortages. Hence the need to import expertise and finance to get fallow and failing farms back on their feet.

How much benefit this scheme would provide to local farmers or put food on local tables is questionable, given the crops will be exported to China. There is already a backlash against investors from China, South Korea and some of the Gulf states buying up farmland across Africa to produce cash crops for export at the expense of local subsistence farmers. Giving it away smacks of a bizarre reverse new colonialism.

Footnote: Chinese business have stepped into an economic void caused by U.S. and European sanctions imposed in 2002 against Zimbabwe’s human-rights record. Chinese-made goods are a common sight in local stores. Trade between the two countries totaled $560 million dollars last year, with three-fifths of that accounted for by Zimbabwean imports of Chinese products, particular mobile communications hardware.

Zimbabwe’s leading export to China is apparently tobacco, a surprise for such a minerals-rich country, though that may change with the easing of international restrictions on sales of Zimbabwe’s diamonds. Two of the five companies with diamond-mining licenses are Chinese. However, we note in passing trouble at one of them, Sino-Zimbabwe, state-owned cement maker China Building and Material Co.’s joint venture with Zimbabwe’s state-owned Industrial Development Corp., which reportedly fired local workers at its diamond mining operation earlier this month (via Bloomberg).

Political relations between Beijing and Harare are warm. In February, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for the lifting of sanctions against the country. The following month, China provided Zimbabwe with a $700 million loan, to be used primarily to develop farming. Meanwhile, Chinese-owned businesses have been exempted from a recent law requiring Zimbabwean businesses to be 51% indigenously owned.

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Chinese Farmers Seek To Till African, South American Soil

Yesterday’s post on the drought in the wheat lands of the northern plain prompted an e-mail (always welcome, but please also free feel to share as a comment) asking whether anything happened about Beijing’s plans to lease farmland in Africa and South America.

This was a hot topic of conversation a year back before the commodities boom — and everything else, come to that  — went bust. Just as China needed to secure strategic supplies of energy and raw materials by investing at the source in supplier nations, so the same logic was applied to food. Last May, the agriculture ministry proposed making supporting overseas land acquisitions by domestic agricultural companies official government policy, similar to the support given to state-owned banks, manufacturers and oil companies to undertake their foreign direct investment.

China’s demand for commodities has slumped since, but that for food hasn’t. With only 7% of the world’s arable land (and shrinking thanks to urbanization), plus calorie intakes rising, food imports have inevitably been growing. China is only able to pay lip service to its policy of food self-sufficiency, and has been for some years.

Regardless of official policy, Beijing has quietly encouraged Chinese enterprises to invest in agricultural ventures in relatively unexploited regions of Africa and Latin America, and that would at the same time appeal to countries’ development needs.  China is also funding ten new agricultural training centers across Africa to raise the continent’s overall farm productivity. It has discussed with various countries leasing land to be worked by Chinese farmers, much as Chinese labor has been shipped into Chinese funded construction projects overseas.

The largest existing example of that we’ve heard of is more than 6,600 hectares in Brazil farmed by 30 Chinese families, who export the soybeans they grow directly back to China. In Africa, some 350 Chinese are successfully farming 4,000 leased hectares in Uganda. Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Zambia, too, have Chinese-leased farms on a smaller scale.

In 2007, the head of the Export-Import Bank, Li Ruogu, pledged his support for Chinese farmers migrating to Africa. He also told an audience in  Chongqing that more than 12 million farmers from the surrounding area would have to leave their land by 2020. Finding work in Africa, he thought, would be easier than finding a new job at home.

Chinese investment could certainly raise Africa’s agricultural productivity and build much needed farm infrastructure like storage silos and irrigation systms. But there are deep sensitivities that could be hurt. Foreign-run farms and plantations are historically closely connected with colonialism in Africa, one reason that many African nations still restrict land ownership by foreigners.

Given the political sensitivities in likely recipient countries, the agricultural ministry’s proposal last May, as far as we know, remains just that. But certainly no official is likely to stand in the way of any Chinese farmer looking to till foreign soil.

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