Despite all the fanfare, the Asian giant is not the easy touch the Zimbabwean despot once knew.
The gun salutes, red carpets and ceremony that greeted President Robert Mugabe on his trip to China last week are just about all Zimbabwe’s leader has learnt from a long relationship with his Asian ally.
Since Mugabe came to power in 1980, he has made 13 state visits to China, President Xi Jinping is the fifth Chinese president Mugabe has met and, during that time, China’s economic policies have turned it into a global economic powerhouse. By contrast, Mugabe has hung on to power and refuses to let go of his old ways of running the economy. Mugabe still sees China as the old liberation ally that poured in arms and provided training to Zanla guerrillas during the war of independence. But how little China was willing to give away for free showed how much China has changed and how Mugabe’s government has remained stuck in the past.
China’s Communist Party has prospered by renewing its leadership, unlike Zimbabwe. Mugabe flew home from Beijing to head straight back into the leadership battle that is a result of his own refusal to appoint a successor.
Thousands of party members greeted him at the airport, many of them carrying banners denouncing one party faction or the other. Party officials could not even wait for him to return to his office and lined up in the airport lounge to brief him on the infighting during his weeklong absence. Right there at the airport, Mugabe warned senior officials to stop the bickering.
According to several government officials involved in negotiations with China during recent months, Chinese officials have shown how far Beijing has moved on in its relationship with Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s debt to China
Before Mugabe’s visit, Zimbabwean and Chinese officials discussed a wide range of economic deals, including energy, water, telecommunications and transportation. Although Mugabe’s government hoped that old friendships would grease the discussions, Chinese negotiators have “been fixed on the facts and figures, the nuts and bolts”, according to a senior government official closely involved in negotiations for assistance.
According to data from the ministry of finance, Zimbabwe already owes China $700-million, much of which is not being serviced. So China is unwilling to extend any more credit, at least not until Zimbabwe comes up with a way in which to set aside a large part of its future mineral earnings to pay off existing and new Chinese loans, a demand that is proving controversial.
Among the key “deals” Zimbabwe discussed were energy and water projects worth $2-billion, a loan of nearly $320-million to fund state telecoms networks, and road and rail construction agreements.
But to meet the demands that the loans must be linked to future earnings from mineral resources, Zimbabwean negotiators are looking at how they can do this without being accused of “mortgaging” the country to the Chinese.
“What were signed were memoranda of understanding; really, agreements to say we can start negotiations on the deals. This will take time,” a government official told the Mail & Guardian on Wednesday.
Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa has admitted that China refused to throw money at an old friend and will only countenance profitable deals. “No country sets aside a lump-sum payment for no specific projects. You will not come to China to ask for money to invest in a project that won’t pay for itself. That would not make economic sense,” Chinamasa said.
The Chinese embassy’s economic attaché, Han Bing, recently said China would only grant credit to Zimbabwe if it was secured by earnings from minerals.
Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita illustrates the outcome of the different paths taken by the old allies. Zimbabwe’s GDP per capita was $960 in 1980, according to the World Bank, more than three times that of China then. In 2013, Zimbabwe’s per capita GDP was now under $960, dwarfed by China’s, which is more than $9?000.
“Zimbabwe has failed to learn from other countries’ experiences, but [has] descended into crisis and paralysis and is now a classic example of how not to [govern],” researchers at the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe said in a report.
The Chinese president has been ruthless on graft: the Chinese Communist Party’s central commission for discipline inspection has been tasked with uncovering corruption among its own members.
By contrast, Mugabe has tolerated it. Many critics back home pointed out that among Mugabe’s delegation was Frederick Shava, who is Zimbabwe’s ambassador to China. In 1989, Shava was uncovered as one of the kingpins in the infamous Willowgate vehicle scandal, in which ministers bought vehicles through a ministerial scheme at a discounted price and resold them illegally for massive profit. At the time, one judge of the Sandura commission set up to investigate the corruption said Shava had bought and sold so many vehicles that he had behaved “like a car dealer”. Like many other ministers, he was convicted but Mugabe pardoned him.
Under Xi, China has banned its senior officials from big spending. The Communist Party last year warned that some of its cadres were found to “be hankering for fame and gain and behaving irresponsibly”.
A ban was imposed on extravagance – everything from big banquets and luxury foreign cars, expensive travel and even cheering crowds.“Zimbabwe has failed to learn from other countries’ experiences but [has] descended into crisis and paralysis”