Chinese President Xi Jinping this week hosted Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa on an official state visit to Beijing. Jinping hailed his counterpart as “an old friend of China”, but the diplomatic niceties masked the complexities of the relationship between Zimbabwe and the Asian superpower.
This is Mnangagwa’s first state visit outside Africa since he assumed power last November, replacing another “old friend of China” – former President Robert Mugabe – in the process.
Mugabe made half a dozen similar state visits to China during his decades-long rule, with China becoming arguably Zimbabwe’s most important international ally after Western countries began to isolate the Mugabe regime in 2000, in the wake of the controversial land reform process. Mugabe’s relationship with China formed the basis of the strongman’s ‘Look East’ policy, an attempt to reorient Zimbabwe’s foreign and economic policy around Beijing.
The policy was only partially successful. While China promised a number of mega deals worth billions of dollars, these rarely materialised, and the inherent instability of the Mugabe regime meant that Beijing preferred to shower its largesse in other countries, such as Angola and Djibouti.
But Mnangagwa has long positioned himself as the antidote to this instability. In 2015, when he visited Beijing in his role as Mugabe’s vice-president, he cast himself as a reformist in the mould of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who implemented the market-oriented reforms that laid the foundations for China’s economic growth. It is an image that Mnangagwa, now president, keeps returning to as he travels the world to convince businessmen and politicians that Zimbabwe really is open for business.
The Chinese, for their own part, are understood to have long backed Mnangagwa as their preferred successor to Mugabe. It helped that the president received military training in Nanjing in the early 1960s.
Mnangagwa is also understood to have been instrumental in helping two Chinese companies obtain vast diamond mining concessions in Marange, eastern Zimbabwe, where two Chinese companies partnered with the army in controversial deals that have been mired in accusations of corruption and human rights abuses.
There have also been whispers that China played a supporting role in the military coup which brought Mnangagwa to power. These rumours were fuelled by the visit to Beijing of Mnangagwa’s co-conspirator Constantino Chiwenga – now vice-president and then army boss – in the days immediately prior to Mugabe’s ouster.
A new chapter
This cozy relationship continued in the first weeks of the Mnangagwa administration. A $153-million loan agreement was signed with China for the refurbishment of Harare’s international airport, while indigenisation laws were scrapped to make it easier for foreign businesses to operate in Zimbabwe.
It has not all been plain sailing, however. The Chinese government was furious when Chinese firms were included in a list of companies that had illegally transferred hundreds of millions of dollars out of Zimbabwe. “Some of the things are not factual. They would have done better to investigate more and come up with a more credible list,” said Zhao Baogang, a Chinese diplomat in Harare.
But the reception that Mnangagwa received in Beijing made it clear that this incident has been swept under the carpet. The Zimbabwean president, accompanied by a dozen ministers and 80 leading businessmen, indicated that he will continue Mugabe’s ‘Look East’ policy, saying that China’s financial resources, technical expertise and modern technology would be crucial in reviving Zimbabwe’s struggling economy.
President Xi made it equally clear that China was on board with this plan. “I’m willing to work with Mr President to jointly map out our future cooperation and write a new chapter in China-Zimbabwe relations for the benefit of our two peoples,” Xi said.
To underscore this commitment, the two countries signed a number of memoranda of understanding in the fields of food assistance, hydropower, economic and technical assistance; while the Zimbabwean businessmen present claimed to have secured $500 million worth of deals in agriculture, mining and transport sectors.
As yet, however, no cash has actually changed hands – and it seems unlikely to do so until after Zimbabwe’s election, which is scheduled for sometime in July. But with the opposition in chaos, Mnangagwa is all but guaranteed victory. With their “old friend” firmly installed in State House, and enjoying legitimacy from the international community, expect China to swiftly ramp up its investments – and perhaps even prepare for Xi Jinping to return the favour of a state visit.