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.