China’s Hand in Zimbabwean Gridlock

Published on 22nd April 2008

When Chinese President Hu Jintao promised five billion United States dollars in loans and credits over three years to fifty African heads of state and ministers at a China-Africa summit in Beijing, no one would have guessed that part of this gesture of benevolence would be a cargo of three million rounds of ammunition, 1,500 rocket-propelled grenades and 2,500 mortar rounds destined to Zimbabwe. BBC correspondent Daniel Griffiths quoted Hu Jintao as saying "China will forever be a good friend, good partner and good brother of Africa." Although for Zimbabwe, this friendship dates back to the 1970s when China supported a guerrilla war against the racist regime of Ian Smith, outgoing president Robert Mugabe is now more grateful as such aid safeguards his dwindling political fortunes. 

Early last week, the South African press was abuzz with a story that court action initiated by the country's civil society prevented Chinese freighter An Yue Jiang from offloading its Zimbabwean-bound dangerous guns and bullets cargo in Durban.  International law prohibits the delivery of arms to countries that are experiencing civil strife and Zimbabwe is one such country. What puzzles many Zimbabweans is the magnitude of double standards and hypocrisy practiced by the Chinese government, who have a somewhat infamous reputation of pushing profits ahead of local human rights interests. Zimbabwean state media has always celebrated China's vetoing of each and every resolution that condemns African despots at the United Nations, buttressing this tragic stance by claiming that certain actions harm innocent people. 

Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe who lost an election on 29 March 2008 but refuses to publish the official results, has now engulfed the countryside in an orgy of anxiety and violence. Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights [ZADHR] is quoted to have issued a statement concerning 157 cases of organised violence and torture documented by members of its Association. Opposition Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] Secretary General Tendai Biti is quoted as saying 3 000 families have been displaced in election-related violence, with more than 400 MDC activists under detention since the 29 April plebiscite. And yet the Chinese government ignores all this for the sake of the Greenback, which, from a business viewpoint, ironically makes sense, but is the highest degree of dangerous hypocrisy. With one in every three shops run by a Chinese downtown Harare, one cannot discount a possible xenophobic explosion in this MDC stronghold.

According to the OECD reports (between 1992 and 2004) exports to Africa from China grew by five thousand percent. This excludes bilateral agreements for public construction works, investment in mines and energy as even in Zimbabwe. In the past fifteen years, China's foreign investment in Africa has risen to $850m, while since 1995 China's share of total African exports has risen from just 1% to nearly 10%.  Zimbabwe’s vice president Joice Mujuru has interests in a company called Dande Holdings partnered by Chinese to generate hydroelectric power in her home area. The national courier Air Zimbabwe flies more than twice a week to China under the much trumpeted 'Look East Policy', benefiting mostly ruling party ZANUpf cronies who use subsidised air fares and buy cheap US dollars from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to import useless trinkets from China. In Harare, Chinese operate several steel and tile factories now either producing or importing second grade products that have been largely condemned by reputable construction companies. The Harare-Norton dual carriage way, Robert Mugabe's route to his rural home, has been under 'construction' for almost fifteen years, a mere thirty-kilometre stretch habitually washed away in every successive rainy season. Zimbabwe's only national sports stadium constructed by the Chinese in the mid-eighties currently stands derelict and idle, because structural defects were condemned by the world football governing body FIFA.

Yet China is not alone in this deadly game of blind eye pretence. Were it not for the Southern Africa Litigation Centre and individual members of a church, the life-threatening cargo of An Yue Jiang would have been offloaded at the Durban port, because the Thabo Mbeki government had given clearance. Mr Mbeki is currently embroiled in a diplomatic scandal for proclaiming that Zimbabwe is not in a crisis. It is difficult to understand why Mr Mbeki does not know of the existence of the National Conventional Arms Control Act that requires that transfer of arms must not contribute "to internal repression or suppression of human rights and fundamental freedom" and not provide "arms to governments that systematically violate or suppress human rights and fundamental freedoms." Like his counterpart in Hu Jintao, South African president Thabo Mbeki promotes national business interests ahead of organised, state sponsored murder in Zimbabwe.

Social scientists and progressive economists argue that despots like Robert Mugabe are falling into the trap of Chinese imperialism. If, as in the case of Mr Mugabe, sovereignty is critical in nation statehood, why is Chinese and South African imperialism more acceptable than its British or American counterpart? Human rights are clearly not on the Agenda for super powers. The Americans are currently camped in Iraq. China is extracting oil from the Dafur region. When Robert Mugabe's government butchered twenty five thousand minority Ndebeles in the 1980s, Britain was silent. The world is abuzz with Beijing's psychological war fair in Taiwan and Tibet. In Zimbabwe, workers employed in Chinese companies complain of abuse, while members of the Confederation of Zimbabwe industries have to contend with cheap Chinese goods that negatively affect demand for locally manufactured merchandise in  a country where productive capacity has declined by sixty percent since 2000, sending eighty percent of employable Zimbabweans into the streets or exile.

Therefore as the An Yue Jiang heads back to sea with its deadly cargo, progressive Zimbabweans and sympathetic Africans can heave a sigh of relief that for the time being, Robert Mugabe may just be content stuffing ballot boxes and beating up political opponents with baton sticks, knob caries and pangas. At least, democracy may live to tell its tales.

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