Harare(ZimEye) â€šÃ„ÃºWe are enjoying Chinese food,â€šÃ„Ã¹ says the caption on a photograph of Zimbabwean children eating rice with potatoes and drinking Coca Cola at the recent Tianjin international arts festival in China.
Posted outside the old Chinese embassy building here, this is the image Beijing wants the world to see. It is the story they want people to believe. That of China as the benevolent â€šÃ„Ã²co-operating partnerâ€šÃ„Ã´ filling the shoes of the â€šÃ„Ã²evilâ€šÃ„Ã´ West that has imposed personal sanctions on Zimbabweâ€šÃ„Ã´s ruling elite and withdrawn its investments after exploiting the countryâ€šÃ„Ã´s wealth for more than a century.
All over Africa, the story is the same. Overly polite Chinese diplomats taking part in small functions, giving teddy bears to children and trying hard to please the locals. This is what they do in public. In private, however, the story is entirely different.
The recent announcement by China that it is providing $7.9 billion in â€šÃ„Ã²loansâ€šÃ„Ã´ to the Camara military junta that recently took power in Guinea through a coup dâ€šÃ„Ã´etat has re-ignited debate about Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s real intentions in Africa.
â€šÃ„ÃºBlood and money in the streetsâ€šÃ„Ã¹ screams a headline on the investigative website Africa-Asia-Confidential.com. The story is all too familiar: China using its financial might to prop up and abet an unelected, unpopular military regime in exchange for the countryâ€šÃ„Ã´s fabulous oil wealth.
The pattern is familiar and it has been repeated many times across Africa. Unelected officials are by nature jittery. They are not popular at home, so they need weapons to pulverize the local population and keep themselves in power. They are under constant pressure internationally, so they need diplomatic support at the United Nations. A â€šÃ„Ã²friendâ€šÃ„Ã´ like China can provide all that. For a price.
Official statistics show that 800 Chinese state firms are managing some 900 projects in Africa, mostly in oil production and mining. Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s trade with Africa is expected to rise to $100 billion annually in 2010, a significant part of that involving the exploitation of Zimbabweâ€šÃ„Ã´s platinum mines. Sources say the Chinese military has a special interest in Zimbabweâ€šÃ„Ã´s aluminium and zinc.
But the big question is, why is China so enthusiastic about a continent in turmoil, where corruption, mismanagement and political strife have forced even the most resilient Western firms to give up? Zimbabwe in particular is littered with failed deals and broken promises for international investors. Having failed to honour international investment agreements, the regime of Robert Mugabe has developed a standard strategy for dealing with the disgruntled investors: kick them out, using violence and threats!
So why are the Chinese rushing in where angels fear to tread?
The answer, though speculative, may lie in Chinaâ€šÃ„Ã´s own plan, which may be more ruthless than what the most ruthless of African leaders, like Mugabe can conceive.
Pinning down a dictator
After Mugabe was defeated by arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for democratic Change at the polls in March 2008, his most trusted aide, Emmerson Mnangagwa devised a new survival plan. Instead of giving up power as expected, Mnangagwa and a small band of senior army officers known as the Joint Operations Command (JOC) took over the running of the country. They deliberately delayed announcing the results while figuring out what to do next. They told Mugabe to stay put until their plan came together.
In the meantime pressure was mounting all over. The United States and other members of the UN Security Council were demanding tough action on Harare. In essence some people were calling for Mugabeâ€šÃ„Ã´s removal by force and a swift trial at the Hague â€šÃ„Ã¬ Saddam Hussein-style.
The Chinese could help. And the Russians. Provided there was sufficient incentive for it.
In 2007, the Chinese government had been forced to abandon a deal to supply a consignment of weapons to Harare due to international pressure. The Beijing Olympics were looming. China was in no position to be seen violating international codes, in particular an arms embargo against Zimbabwe. China was forced to issue a statement re-affirming a commitment to only supply â€šÃ„Ã²humanitarian assistanceâ€šÃ„Ã´ to Harare.
However, in the confused and confusing atmosphere following Mugabeâ€šÃ„Ã´s defeat, Harare became desperate and some say, China was tempted by the offers made by Mnangagwa.
In exchange for F-1 jetfighters, vehicles and an assortment of weapons, Mugabe would give the Chinese platinum, lithium, aluminium, zinc and diamonds.
Above all the Chinese could actually get farms, which they had been promised for many years but which had never been delivered. With a worldwide food crisis looming, China could use Zimbabwean land to grow food crops. They had tried Zambia, with a measure of success after Mugabe failed to deliver in 2004, but Zimbabweâ€šÃ„Ã´s infrastructure offered better prospects for commercial agriculture in the long run, at lower cost since many of the people required to run the enterprises were already well-trained by the British. So the weapons came, amid much controversy and Zimbabwe is now at the mercy of the Chinese, who now control most facets of business in the country.
Platinum and diamond mines have been seized from their owners and given to the Chinese. Farms and even buildings have been mortgaged for weapons.
The Chinese have courted controversy after taking over most retail outlets vacated by their Western owners who fled persecution by Mugabe. â€šÃ„Ã²Zhing zhongâ€šÃ„Ã´ is a derogatory term referring to the flood of second-rate and fake Chinese goods flooding the Zimbabwean market. Black empowerment advocates are furious that Mugabe could chase out the British only to hand the country on a silver platter to the Chinese.
This is seen as the new face of colonialism, this time sugar-coated with patriotic language and coming from the east.
Workers complain that the Chinese employers either do not pay them or pay them a pittance with no prospects of ever holding management positions that are reserved for fellow Chinese.
All over Africa, the story is the same: The Chinese are getting much more than they are giving, with the active help of the continentâ€šÃ„Ã´s corrupt leaders.(ZimEye, Zimbabwe)
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John-Chimunhu – The Zimbabwe Eye