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Was China A Catalyst for Political Change in Zimbabwe?

Former president Robert Mugabe and Chinese premier Xi Jinping.
Former president Robert Mugabe and Chinese premier Xi Jinping.

It didn’t take long for speculation to begin that China, Zimbabwe’s main trade partner, was involved in the recent removal of Robert Mugabe as president of the southern African nation.

The ties between his replacement, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and businesspeople and politicians in China added fuel to the fire.

But political analysts who monitor relations between the giant of the Far East and Africa dismiss conspiracy theories that China was a catalyst for political change in Zimbabwe.

The close relationship between military and party elites in China and Zimbabwe goes back to the 1970s, when Zimbabwean liberation forces fought whites-only rule.

Cobus van Staden, a senior foreign policy researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, says, "Several ZANU-PF senior leaders were trained in China, including Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new president.”

He says the Mugabe regime’s bonds with China grew stronger after the United States instituted financial sanctions in the early 2000s in response to Zimbabwe’s human rights violations.

Van Staden says the Chinese were “very visible” in Zimbabwe under Mugabe.

“Notably, they built a new parliament building. They’re heavily invested in some of the extractive industries in Zimbabwe. They’re a client of the Zimbabwean agriculture sector, so they buy a lot of tobacco. Retail and other smaller Chinese companies are also involved in Zimbabwe. So the (Chinese) involvement is more complex than it looks from the outside. It’s less simply big companies riding in and taking resources; it’s a more fine-grained engagement.”

Van Staden understands why some see a “hidden Chinese hand” behind recent events. For one thing, Chinese firms have made the new president and some military commanders wealthy with diamond mining contracts.

A visit to Beijing by the army general who led the operation against the Mugabe government, Constantino Chiwenga, also bolstered rumors of Chinese involvement. Chiwenga was in China just days before the army took control of the government.

“There is probably a pretty good chance that China was probably informed that this is going to happen, before (it happened). However, that does not mean that China had any kind of active role in making it happen.”

Van Staden says China’s record in Africa shows it doesn’t instigate regime change. He also points out that China is more heavily invested in places that are much more volatile than Zimbabwe, such as South Sudan, but it doesn’t interfere there.

What the events in Zimbabwe rather reveal, says van Staden, is China’s growing influence on world events.

“China is now on a level in Africa where it is informed of these kind of things beforehand. China’s now occupying a position in Africa on the same level as the U.S. or the U.K. As the West retreats from multilateralism China’s interested in stepping into some of those roles.”

Van Staden says the relationship between China and Zimbabwe had become strained in recent years because of Zimbabwe’s failure to settle debt.

But indications are that this tension is “easing” under Mnangagwa. For instance, in the past few weeks, China signed a deal to refurbish the airport in Harare, and quickly sent senior envoys. He says Beijing has made clear they want a friendly relationship.

And, he says, there’s no difference between China’s presence in Zimbabwe and that of other countries.

“The Western characterization of China (and the Chinese) as being these kind of robbers of Africa is very self-serving, especially because many European and American companies are involved in exactly the same sectors in exactly the same way as Chinese competitors.”

He says China’s record in Africa shows that it adapts to whatever political and economic systems it finds, and is unlikely to impose any conditions on Zimbabwe.

“I think China is not going to go anywhere; it’s going to probably become an even more prominent partner to Zimbabwe.”

And so too are other nations, says van Staden, should the fledgling president keep his promises of reforms.