Did Beijing give the go-ahead to remove Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe? Nobody is saying. But it is suspicious that Zimbabwe’s army chief General Chiwenga visited China a few days before he moved against Mugabe. Presumably, nobody in Beijing told him ‘no.’

China has huge investments in Zimbabwe – including tobacco, diamonds, and power generation – and is by far the country’s largest benefactor.

And there’s been Chinese concern, indeed anger, over the last few years over enforcement of the ‘indigenization law’ – Mugabe’s brainchild requiring foreign companies operating in the country to have majority black Zimbabwean ownership. Chinese companies and interests stand to suffer.

China can size things up: Even Mugabe isn’t going to live forever. And for a successor it’s a choice between his wife, Grace, or recently dismissed Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa whose removal sparked the coup.

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe meets with senior members of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and police at State House in Harare, Zimbabwe November 19, 2017. ZIMPAPERS IMAGES/Joseph Nyadzayo/Handout via REUTERS
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe meets army leaders at State House in Harare, Zimbabwe November 19, 2017. Zimpapers Images/Joseph Nyadzayo/via Reuters

So it was a choice between the mean, grabby wife and a former Mugabe henchman with the Army on his side – and up to his ears in slaughtering 15,000 Matabele people in the 1980’s. One of them had guns and one didn’t.

Mnangagwa might also back off the indigenization law, while Grace, a kleptomaniac, was likely to use it to steal even more.

And even if the Mugabes wriggled off the hook, both they and Mnangagwa depend on Beijing’s cash – and have for years.

And even if the Mugabes wriggle off the hook (in a televised address on Sunday, Mugabe declined to say he would step down) both they and Mnangagwa depend on Beijing’s cash – and have for years.

All in all, a ‘win-win’ for China. Anything but an honest leader acting for the country’s longsuffering citizens’ benefit.

Zimbabwe typifies China’s approach to Africa. The sheer scale and scope of Chinese investment and aid – both government and private – is rightly astonishing. And Chinese will go places nobody else will. But it all might lack staying power.

That’s because it’s largely based on throwing money around – and a lot of it.

The modus operandi is to buy off (literally) parts of the local ruling class while building stadiums, government buildings and the like – in exchange for insinuating Chinese companies into a country’s natural resources, land, infrastructure, and local industry and business.

Not surprisingly, dictators (even if called ‘president’) and corruptible officials and businesspeople are preferred partners. Besides the Mugabe’s, the Dos Santos family that runs Angola, and President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta’s in South Africa, and others have done well with the Chinese, and vice versa.

A decade ago, one East African president reportedly sent a bag-man to Europe every month to deposit the Chinese loot

And Chinese infrastructure projects often use imported Chinese labor rather than employing many locals. Not exactly how one makes friends.

Such projects are also often plagued by quality control problems, while maintaining them is sometimes an afterthought. Don’t maintain them and they fall apart. Africa is littered with such relics – from long before the Chinese showed up.

Also, China development projects and other deals can come with onerous terms. If a poor country can’t repay, China either takes ownership or gets its pound of flesh elsewhere.

Indeed, China in Africa sometimes makes Cecil Rhodes look like a philanthropist.

Indeed, China in Africa sometimes makes Cecil Rhodes look like a philanthropist.

Although Beijing is on a roll of sorts, its ‘Africa play’ is going to be hard to pull off over the long run. Cash only buys friendship for so long. And relatively few locals benefit, leading to popular resentment.

Before too long, expect to see the People’s Liberation Army showing up to protect Chinese investments – especially natural resource extraction projects – in Africa.

And Chinese expeditionary forces based in Djibouti (for now) will likely intervene to protect local Chinese communities when local resentment at corruption and Beijing’s economic rapaciousness boils over.

Perhaps to have most impact, Beijing should figure out a way to hand out US Green Cards in large quantities.

Recycled cash

Despite China’s preference for dictators and ‘corruptibles,’ the West shouldn’t chuckle. Although long on advice, the West has done little to promote honest government in Africa – what the continent really needs – in the years before or since the Chinese became major players.

One principled African jurist recently described Western aid to Africa as ‘recycled’ money.

His point: Money stolen by corrupt elites is moved to Europe (or America) where local banks are glad to have it. Western governments then send along foreign aid – with anti-corruption lectures. The money is stolen once again, sent back to Europe and the process starts over.

That Mugabe has lasted 37 years says plenty. Despite a horrific human rights record, snuffing out democracy, and looting the country, the West did little to call him to account. Indeed, it even played a major role in installing him power – though nobody cares to think about that these days.

Nor is Asia much better. The welcome mat has been out for Mugabe in Tokyo several times – to include a state visit and meeting with the Emperor in 2016.

And the Mugabe’s are frequent visitors to Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. Mugabe regularly goes to Singapore for medical treatment. Of course, when he took over Zimbabwe in 1980 he only had to drive a couple miles from his mansion in Harare to find a world class hospital.

But back to China and Africa: Beijing will someday learn (probably the hard way) that even with Chinese characteristics, colonialism is still just colonialism. And Africans who aren’t on the take don’t appreciate it much.

16 replies on “Coup in Zimbabwe: A win-win for China – for now”

Comments are closed.