He came, he signed—Chinese president’s ‘historic’ visit could change Zimbabwe in a rather unexpected way

Xi arrived in Harare Tuesday to much state fanfare, including an escort of his plane in by Zimbabwe military jets.

IN a sign of just how much his visitor meant to him,  Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe wasted no time in Paris, the capital of a key player in the European Union—a bloc that has in recent years slapped sanctions on Zimbabwe including on the president’s travel.

In October 2013, while receiving France’s new chief diplomat to Harare, Mugabe sought to shrug off the restrictions, saying he did not want to visit France for “romantic purposes” but “to develop relations between us”, in an acknowledgment that the sanctions were hurting the country.

The EU has since moved to gradually loosen the sanctions, but ties remain strained, and may only recover with a transition.

Mugabe might have been tempted to stay on much longer, enjoying his rare trips to the West, but this week’s visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping offered even rarer diplomatic capital—and also crucially, the hard currency of tangible economic benefits.

As such Mugabe gave his speech at a key UN environmental meeting on Monday, where he castigated the developed world in his usual fashion before dashing back down to Harare to receive Xi, who arrived mid-morning Tuesday to much state fanfare, including an escort of his plane in by Zimbabwe military jets and a 21-gun salute.

He could have held a bilateral meeting right there on the tarmac, emerging to find nearly the entire government waiting for him—including a beaming Mugabe, First Lady Grace and the country’s two vice presidents.

 Despite the visit being fitted into the Chinese leader’s itinerary because it fell neatly on the way to the more high-profile  Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit that opened in Johannesburg Friday, which Mugabe, who is the African Union chair, is also attending, Harare sought to play up its significance.

The state machinery went into overdrive, with its media, which had for weeks been amplifying the visit, terming the trip “historic”—despite former Chinese president Jiang Zemin having visited in 1996.

Harare’s most prominent visitor

It was a vindication of Zimbabwe’s Look East policy trumping Western machinations, minister after minister queued to affirm.

Because of the sanctions, Xi is the most prominent leader from outside the continent for many years to visit Zimbabwe.

“The people of Zimbabwe are overjoyed to host you,” Mugabe told Xi as he wined and dined him at a state banquet, describing the Chinese as “true and dear friends of the people of Zimbabwe.”

“I am glad that Zimbabwe and China speak the same language on many issues,” said Mugabe. “We share the same conviction that only a fair, just and non-prescriptive world order, based on the principles of the charter of the United Nations, can deliver the development we all need.”

Xi in turn hailed Mugabe for standing firm against Western “interference” and said historical ties dating back to the 1960s had informed his choice of Zimbabwe as the only country that bilateral deals would be agreed on his second trip to Africa.

Several deals were signed, including the provision by China of a $1.2 billion loan to rehabilitate and expand Zimbabwe’s Hwange power plant—fired, rather ironically, by coal given the focus on sealing a climate change pact back in Paris. This was just one of a clutch of other power deals that China will fund, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa said, as the country reels from a crippling energy deficit.

China also offered to foot the bill for the construction of a new parliament building, and pledged to donate equipment for the protection of wildlife, which are rapidly being felled, including through poisoning with cyanide. China is a major market of elephant tusks and rhino horn poached from African pachyderms.

China would also fund a national pharmaceutical warehouse and projects in agriculture, manufacturing, telecommunications and aviation among others, while Mugabe said he would continue to seek more funding from China to help resuscitate the economy.

Old-new deals

Brand new deals were harder to come by—most of the “mega deals” as the country’s state media has been fondly referring to them, signed this week were what Mugabe negotiated last year in August when he went to Beijing—the 13th time he has done so.

So important are the deals to the government’s economic blueprint that Zimbabwean officials, vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa included, spent a lot of time shuttling to Beijing to check on their status.

But China’s visit is significant in another way—it is one of the few on the continent that Beijing wields anything approaching hard power in. Beijing, alongside Moscow, has been a guarantor of Zimbabwe at international forums, including when both countries in 2008 vetoed a US-led resolution at the UN Security Council that would have had even graver economic implications for the African country.  

An arms embargo that was part of the sanctions would have hurt military hardware exports from both countries, a relationship that goes back decades—China’s aid, including of a military nature, was instrumental in helping Mugabe mount a liberation war.

But until now, China has sought to rely on its soft power in relations with Africa—persuasion and attraction as opposed to the coercion of hard power. It is a strategy that has largely failed to make its mark on international discourse, its charm offensives performing dismally in the West and in countries such as India and Japan.

It has however paid off on the continent—the message, spread through cultural initiatives such as Confucius Institutes and funding the billion-dollar expansion of Chinese state media in Africa, has had fertile reception on the ground, research shows it is viewed favourably by most African countries.

But where it is more generally better regarded, it has largely been for its infrastructure funding and absence from playing in the sensitive governance and human rights arena.

This approach by Beijing has been because it actively seeks African diplomatic recognition for its “communist” state-led capitalism model against the western one (and in the battle against Taiwan), and also the continent’s support at key forums such as the United Nations. 

China has been particularly keen to point out that its brand of authoritarianism and economic capitalism has produced the growth that is so admired by Africans, with Ethiopia, Rwanda and even South Africa keen students.

As such, it is deeply vested in the economic recovery of Zimbabwe, once a blue-eyed boy of the West before relations went south following a controversial land redistribution programme, and to which it is its biggest source of foreign investment.

But soft power can only go so far, and Beijing wants more. Its new One Belt, One Road foreign policy that seeks to position it as a comprehensive global power will need to be backed by might, even in Africa.

The Asian country is currently looking to set up a naval base in Djibouti—it’s first military location on the continent—despite being careful not to describe it as such.

Its engagement with Zimbabwe thus offers a sort of testing ground that it can take both approaches on the continent and come off even stronger.

In a sign of just how much clout Beijing has carved out in Zimbabwe, at one point this year Chinese experts were operating from Mugabe’s office, as they sought to ensure their investments are safe in the uncertainty surrounding the country’s leadership, a risk-mitigation approach that appeared to transcend the country’s much-guarded sovereignty but which Harare described as “capacitation”.

It was Beijing taking a more hands-on approach, like any other power it is not an altruistic giver—it has also behind closed doors urged Harare to manage the transition more solidly—a change model its has perfected in the Communist Party of China.  

Indeed, in October South Africa’s ruling was threatening to quit the ICC over the furore caused by its failure to arrest indicted Sudan leader Omar el-Bashir in June when he came to the country for the African Union summit. This time South Africa had said it would invite Bashir. In the end, it would seem, not wanting Bashir’s ICC troubles to overshadow FOCAC, Beijing slapped down the idea quietly. Bashir was disinvited. (

READ: South Africa should leave ICC, ruling party says; will invite Bashir for China-Africa summit

READ: Having ‘escaped’ arrest, Sudan’s Bashir skips December China-Africa summit in South Africa after court dispute

In a converse way China may thus be the one country that will successfully push both political and economic reforms in Zimbabwe despite its oft-repeated creed of non-interference, a change agent that not even it would have foreseen.

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