Although Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Harare is being viewed as historic by some, most ordinary Zimbabweans have a negative view of the Chinese people in general and they particularly hate cheap Chinese imports that have flooded the country over the years. It remains to be seen whether such perceptions will change following Mr. Xi’s visit.
Businesswoman Helen Dube says she remembers growing up at a time when it was considered prestigious for housewives to own crockery from China, as it was considered high quality and she proudly points out that she has some that she inherited from her mother.
Mrs. Dube is one of the many Zimbabweans who are in the business of selling clothes from China. She thinks that the criticism about cheap Chinese imports is extreme as Chinese manufactures –like others across the world- have a broad range of products for different markets.
Dube says, “A friend of mine goes to China to buy men’s wear. She buys top-of-the-range men’s wear. They are really good, presentable clothes. I sell clothes myself and I know what label is good and what is not, so, I don’t see anything wrong with people buying stuff from China. In China just like in any other country, there are products for the lower end of the market and there are products for the upper end.”
Director Samukele Hadebe of the Policy Research Institute of Zimbabwe was the first director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe and has taught Mandarin.
He agrees that ordinary Zimbabweans’ view the Chinese negatively, mainly due to the influx of cheap Chinese imports, as well as the fact that Zimbabwe has so far mostly attracted small-time Chinese businesspeople, some of whom are close to the ruling Zanu PF party and are seen as using that relationship to allegedly loot the country’s resources.
But Hadebe, who has been a frequent visitor to China, says Zimbabwe has a lot to learn from China, including the nation’s acclaimed work ethic, its transformation from communism to a market economy, and its handling of corruption, which he says are some of the major reasons that have enabled the country to emerge from being one of the poorest, into the world’s second biggest economy in just over three decades.
He says, “It’s understandable for Zimbabweans to have a negative perception about the Chinese because of the limited experience of the few that they have met here. But let’s go and look at the Chinese in their own country; and look at the Chinese winning tenders to develop infrastructure in Africa and elsewhere across the world, then we ask: is the Chinese we are seeing here the same as the one we see in China? I think these are worlds apart.
“What type of Chinese businesspeople are we attracting in the country? I think we have not done well as a country in attracting real Chinese money.”
Although it is accepted by many that Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit is historic, some observers remain skeptical about the real tangible benefits that could accrue to ordinary Zimbabweans in the aftermath, and they point to the much-touted mega-deals that president Robert Mugabe has signed with China, which have not so far not yielded much.
Spokesperson Brian Dube of the MDC-T youth wing is one of those who are skeptical and cites the fact that Zimbabweans have not benefitted anything from the diamond mining in Marange in which some Chinese companies were involved.
But Hadebe says such criticism is misplaced. He says it is the responsibility of the Zimbabwean government to have policies that protect national interest and ensure that Chinese -or any other investors- don’t have an unfair advantage in any deal.
“Foreign relations is about the national interest, so, we should ask, what is our national interest? What is the state of our economy now? We need FDI and we know the Chinese have got money. So, the onus is on us and how we put our act together and get what we want from the Chinese for our own development. Not to say: the Chinese come here and do whatever they want. The question is: where will you be? Where are our laws? We can’t complain about cheap.”
Chinese imports because we allow them. What do our laws say? So let’s strengthen our systems and make sure that whoever we deal with in our business, our national interest is protected.////
Former Finance Minister and leader of Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn Simba Makoni also agrees that Zimbabweans stand to benefit from the country’s relations with China due to the stature that it now has in the global economy.
But he warns that Zimbabwe should also mend its relations with western countries in as much as China also has good relations with those nations.
Makoni also emphasizes the importance of putting national ahead of partisan interest.
“China comes to Africa not for charity; China comes to Zimbabwe not out of solidarity alone. Yes there are elements that they will give humanitarian assistance in solidarity but principally they are coming to promote their interests. They need raw materials to drive their industries –they need coal, they need chrome and so forth.
“When they export chrome ore it’s because they have chrome smelting plants in China and they are not going to take smelted chrome. They are promoting their interests and it’s up to us to promote ours.”
With the number of Chinese nationals coming to set up base in Zimbabwe increasing and the number of Zimbabweans going to China also rising, there has also been a focus on social or cultural relations between the two countries as some of their nationals have developed personal relations that are in some cases resulting in marriages.
Most Zimbabweans are conservative and such relationships are often frowned upon as marriages of convenience, but this has not stopped their occurrence.
Owing to the fact that at one point China’s population was growing at a fast rate, the government between 1978 and 1980 implemented a one-child policy, which has recently been relaxed. The policy was criticized both locally and abroad as inhuman, but Hadebe describes it as one of the best socio-economic policies in modern times, saying it exemplifies the Chinese’s discipline and commitment to policy, which Zimbabweans could also learn from.
Some of the deals that have been struck between China and Zimbabwe have been considered as underhand, and perhaps in the aftermath of President Jinping’s historic visit, Harare will soon start reading from the same page as Beijing and become more transparent and take a stronger stance against corruption, which is seen as one of biggest problems facing the economy.