An international human rights organization based in the United States is warning that relations between Zimbabwe and China are in the future likely to be increasingly strained. The Enough Project – an alliance of scores of advocacy organizations from all over the world – says Zimbabwe’s recent power-sharing agreement could result in a realignment of Beijing’s relationship with Harare. China has in recent years given President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government significant political and economic support. Humanitarian groups say this has exacerbated Zimbabweans’ suffering.
China has shielded the Mugabe administration from several international punitive actions, such as an expansion of targeted sanctions against the president and certain members of his ruling ZANU-PF party, at the United Nations Security Council in July. Beijing vetoed a raft of new measures against the Zimbabwean rulers, arguing that it didn’t want to meddle in the affairs of a sovereign country.
Despite the recent power-sharing agreement, “there really has yet to be an international cost, a measure of accountability, for the (Mugabe) regime,” says Colin Thomas-Jensen, the Enough Project’s Africa Advocacy Manager.
“There are bilateral sanctions that the European Union and the United States have against Zimbabwe, but the type of targeted sanctions that really bite are those passed by the UN Security Council and implemented by every member state. Because China’s been such a staunch defender of the regime, we’ve yet to see that level of international pressure.”
Chinese arms and money keep ZANU-PF going
Activists argue that Chinese support has been a significant contributor towards keeping Mr. Mugabe in power. Beijing has poured investment into Zimbabwe, and has also through the years supplied arms and ammunition to the ZANU-PF government.
In April, shortly after opposition Movement for Democratic Change – MDC – leader Morgan Tsvangirai received more votes than president Mugabe in the first round of Zimbabwean elections, Beijing shipped almost 80 tons of rockets, mortars and other weapons to Zimbabwe. But, after the deal sparked international outrage and workers in South Africa refused to unload the cargo, China recalled the shipment. Speculation continues, though, that the consignment did eventually reach Harare, although China and Zimbabwe deny this.
Human rights activists say China has also sold riot control equipment, small arms and air force trainer jets worth $200 million to Mr. Mugabe’s government. In addition to the weaponry, Beijing has also given several gifts to president Mugabe and his allies. The tiles that decorate the president’s palatial Harare home were a “goodwill donation” from China, for example.
Thomas-Jensen says Beijing’s support for the Mugabe administration thus far has “made a very bad situation much, much worse. An election’s been stolen, an economy’s been driven into the ground by president Mugabe and those around him, the security forces as well as paramilitaries (using Chinese-manufactured) weapons have committed widespread human rights abuses against the Zimbabwean people. It’s a humanitarian disaster, it’s a regional catastrophe.”
The Chinese government has repeatedly denied that it has played any role in harming the people of Zimbabwe, saying that it has pursued “legitimate business interests” in the country, and that Zimbabwe’s internal political and human rights concerns should be solved by Zimbabweans themselves.
Thomas-Jensen says Beijing’s stance “doesn’t hold any water.”
“The fact that China throughout this (political and economic chaos in Zimbabwe) simply stood by and said, ‘this is an internal matter,’ I think sends a pretty clear message to Zimbabweans that the Chinese really don’t care about Zimbabwean’s human rights concerns, about their desire for democracy and about the overwhelming expression that it’s time for Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF to go.”
The activist says the international community has since the days of apartheid South Africa been awakened to the fact that doing business with countries that commit abuses against their people emboldens and strengthens such repressive regimes - “oiling the wheels of war,” in effect - and cannot be excused as “legitimate” business. This, he says, is seen in a number of laws passed by certain states in the US that forbid American companies from doing business with Sudan, which stands accused of perpetrating genocide in Darfur.
Activists are also at the moment keeping a close watch on an unfolding case in a New York federal courtroom, where various groups representing South African victims of human rights atrocities have filed a lawsuit against 24 international banks and corporations that conducted business in apartheid-era South Africa. The plaintiffs say the firms’ business dealings in the country advanced the apartheid system, and that this therefore makes these enterprises complicit in the human rights abuses of the regime.
China driven by quest for resources
Thomas-Jensen says China’s actions regarding Zimbabwe are “undoubtedly” driven by its desire for African resources, and that the ZANU-PF rulers grant Beijing certain privileges in exchange for its political and economic support.
“China’s received a number of mining concessions (from Zimbabwe), and it’s really that that’s been driving the Chinese interest in Zimbabwe,” he says.
Zimbabwean businessman and MDC economics official, Eddie Cross, says some within the country’s mining industry are concerned that the Mugabe administration is transferring a “range of mineral rights” to Chinese companies, or to firms run by the president’s political supporters who in turn also have close ties to Chinese state-owned enterprises.
A spokesman for the ZANU-PF government, George Charamba, says the Chinese are “doing a lot of good for the people of Zimbabwe, with jobs and all of that” and that Harare wouldn’t have forged such close ties with Beijing “if it wasn’t in the best interests of all our people.”
Cross says the government has clearly made it as easy as possible for the Chinese to do business in Zimbabwe. It has, for example, exempted Chinese imports from customs duties, and president Mugabe has awarded the contracts to supply all public buses and provide generators to Zimbabwe’s power company, to Chinese companies.
According to Cross, Zimbabwe has paid Beijing “mostly in kind” for this, especially with tobacco and mineral rights, as foreign exchange is in short supply in Zimbabwe and the country’s own currency is almost worthless.
Also, in 2005, Cross says the ZANU-PF government began to lease land seized from white farmers to “Chinese interests on a contract farming basis.”
But Thomas-Jensen comments, “The Chinese haven’t really received a return on their investments that they expected. Nor have the Zimbabweans seen the Chinese investment do anything to stanch the bleeding of what’s the worst economy in the world.”
He says the Chinese have invested heavily in “infrastructure projects” in Zimbabwe.
“They money’s been laid out but it’s not yet been (spent), and I think that’s partly – if not completely – due to the imploding (Zimbabwean) economy. Even for China, this is a very risky business environment that they’re working in.”
Yet Beijing has indicated nothing but patience with regard to Zimbabwe, saying it’s not concerned about the minimal returns on its investments in Zimbabwe so far, as it’s business plan for the country is long-term.
Tsvangirai Looks West, not East
Mr. Mugabe has called his pro-China policy ‘Look East’ and he says it’s bearing fruit, with increasing numbers of Chinese tourists visiting Zimbabwe, for example.
As opposition to president Mugabe has grown since he began confiscating white-owned farms in 2000, he has repeatedly said that he doesn’t need Western financial and political support, and is far better served by Beijing, whose aid comes with no strings attached.
But analysts say Tsvangirai – who in terms of the power-sharing agreement is Zimbabwe’s new prime minister – is likely to significantly alter Harare’s relationship with the giant of the Far East…. If he and ministers allied to him are indeed eventually given real powers to shape government policy.
“Rather than a ‘Look East’ policy, Tsvangirai has clearly in recent years cultivated a ‘Look West’ policy. For better or worse, he’s seen as very closely allied with Britain and America,” says Professor Sean Jacobs, a South African expert on southern African politics at the University of Michigan in the U.S.
China in turn says it wants to see a positive outcome in Zimbabwe, and is willing to cooperate with the authorities there whoever they are, as long as it’s for the mutual benefit of both China’s and Zimbabwe’s people.
Thomas-Jensen says he doubts Tsvangirai will simply “let bygones be bygones” with regard to China’s recent role in his homeland.
“If Morgan Tsvangirai did have a role in which he could exert some influence on the Zimbabwe government’s policies, I really think we would see a reexamination within the Zimbabwean government of the relationship with China. Mr. Tsvangirai and MDC supporters are not going to easily and quickly forget the role that China’s played in helping to prop up this ZANU-PF government.”