Analysts have rushed to conclude that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s recent state visit to Beijing was informed by his country’s desperate economy,writes Bob Wekesa. Much as this viewpoint holds water, it does not tell the whole story. China seems to have shown somewhat less enthusiasm in offering financial support this time around. Is the south-south solidarity theme, which Mugabe has played on all these years, finally wearing thin? This article was first published by the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch University.
The virtual Chinese citizen
It appears that a lot of candid negotiations were undertaken before Mugabe was given the thumbs up to make his thirteenth official visit to Beijing, in a bid to plug holes in its troubled economy: foreign investments contracted by 59 per cent in the first half of this year, while the unemployment rate is at 80 percent.
It should be noted that Mugabe’s thirteen official bi-lateral visits to Beijing now stand as a record in comparison to visits by other African leaders; this record shoots to sixteen when you factor in his visits during the 2006 FOCAC conference, the 2010 Shanghai Expo and a private visit in 2011. The next African leader with such a high number of visits to China is former Tanzanian president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, with twelve or so visits.
Western relations: a hand overplayed?
What further confirms Zimbabwe’s frantic bid for a Chinese bailout is that its economic blueprint, unveiled last October, and which invited foreign investors, has largely been ignored by Western players. This is an important point to note because Mugabe has over the last couple of months climbed down from his acerbic West-bashing stance in a bid to lessen the impact of economic and political sanctions.
In swallowing humble pie to start courting Western financiers again, Mugabe and his strategists must have looked into the crystal ball and contemplated a scary scenario of total collapse of an already fragile economy. That all the painstaking assurances to turn a new leaf and play by the book – respect for property rights for instance – were largely snubbed by Western financial and economic entities, is a fact that explains Mugabe’s turn to the familiar Look East policy. It must have served as sobering reality for Mugabe to be snubbed by the Obama administration during the recently concluded US-Africa Leaders Summit.
Did Mugabe, then, turn to China only when it became apparent that mending fences with the West was not going to see investors from Europe and America trooping back to Harare?
Further evidence to back up claims on the depths of desperation to which Zimbabwe has fallen were on display when Mugabe and his delegation held a bi-lateral discussion with the Chinese side led by Premier Li Keqiang. Rather cheeky CCTV news coverage of this formal discussion had a reporter mention the strength of traditional relations via a voice-over, and then put Mugabe on record, basically pleading for Chinese assistance in a tone bordering on anguish. A fulsome analysis of Mugabe’s body language while inspecting a guard of honour and when being ushered into a meeting room by Premier Li Keqiang would indicate something amiss with the hitherto flamboyant take-no-prisoners leader.
Mugabe had little room for manoeuvre, and had no option but to plead. His country’s debt stands at a whooping US$ 10 billion, most of it owed to Chinese financial institutions, the very Chinese he had again turned to for help. The question this therefore raises is whether Chinese authorities have grown weary of Zimbabwe’s alms-seeking ways?
In the end, Mugabe and his team coaxed a less-than-expected deal out of the Chinese authorities, apparently on terms largely set by China. Initially, it was understood that the Zimbabweans were pushing for a mineral resources-for-cash deal to capitalize the ambitious US$ 27 billion new economic blueprint. However, tacit statements indicating that investment in areas as diverse as agriculture, special economic zones and railways would have to stand the test of viability, indicates that China was not too keen to exchange money for Zimbabwe’s portfolio of minerals. One can only imagine the back foot on which the Zimbabwean negotiators stood vis-a-vis their Chinese counterparts over the issue of unpaid debts.
Mugabe, the indefatigable
Analysts have, however, been short on the political perspectives of the negotiations. Zimbabwe’s dire economic circumstances are but one dimension of Mugabe’s Look East policy – nay, slogan - a decade after he started using the phrase. Right before boarding the Zimbabwe Airlines plane that took him to Beijing, Mugabe had been elevated to the one-year position of chairman of the Southern African Development Community at the annual heads of state conference in picturesque Victoria Falls. China has recently committed itself to laying out infrastructure across the continent’s regional economic communities, a mission for which the good offices of a SADC chairman might come in handy.
Additionally, and all things remaining equal, Mugabe will be taking over the chairmanship of the African Union heads of state and government from Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz in January 2015. It is likely that the next Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) will happen in neighbouring South Africa, with Mugabe at the helm as AU heads of state chairman. Furthermore, the long memories of China’s hardware support for Mugabe’s ZANU-PF struggle for liberation is a source of soft power capital that China would be hard-put glossing over.
How times have changed since Mugabe, then a 56-year-old firebrand, made his maiden visit to Beijing in 1980, shortly after being sworn in as president of former Southern Rhodesia. For one, the political careers of current Chinese leaders – Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang – were largely in the hands of fate. Hate him or like him, you must be awed by the fact that Mugabe has seen Chinese leaders come and go: Deng Xiaoping (1978-1992), Jiang Zemin (1992-2002), Hu Jintao (2002-2012).
The lesson one takes from the latest trip is that the current crop of leaders are well aware of the political capital of maintaining links with leaders such as Mugabe, but will not bankroll African governments on the strength of south-south solidarity alone, as Chairman Mao would probably have done.
Bob Wekesa is a research associate with the Wits China-Africa Reporting Project, which is funded by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. He is also a PhD candidate at the Communication University of China.