Domesticating hegemony: Institutional legacies of Chinese engagements on Zimbabwe’s governance and economy

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China has become the key political and economic partner for Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s reliance on China dates back to the pre-independence period when one faction of the liberation war, the Zimbabwe African National Union, forged ideological, political and military ties with the Chinese Communist Party on the appeal of Maoism. After independence, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s founding president, showed an inkling towards China. The relationship expanded in 2000 when Mugabe adopted the ‘Look East’ policy after becoming ostracised by the West following deteriorating human rights and his land reform program. Even after Mugabe’s departure, his predecessor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has escalated Zimbabwe’s links with China in his own power-grabbing, power retention and hegemony project.

China has a long record of strategic relationships with dictators and authoritarian leaders across the developing world. Whilst the roots of China’s relationship with much of the Third World date back to the 15th Century, its bedrock was laid in the 19th Century during the ‘First’ Cold War (1955 – 1976). Here, the relationship was built on the ideology of communism in its battle with liberal democracy. China was motivated by check-mating the influence of the United States and particularly the Soviet Union. China thus supported Africa’s liberation war efforts not only ideologically but also materially with arms and war supplies. It was under Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989), however, that a paradigm shift happened. Dang introduced a raft of reforms that modernised China and shaped the country’s future in historic ways. This came about through new economic policies that opened up China to international trade and investment. For Africa in particular,  a reduction of China’s engagement followed for example,  China’s foreign policy would now become more economic and pragmatic than political. From then on, the economic relationship grew in leaps and bounds and by 2009, China was Africa’s largest trading partner, overtaking the United States.

The impact of the Deng-inspired economic revolution began to be felt both locally and globally in about the last two decades. Rather unsurprisingly, there is generally no consensus on the extent of China’s wealth and influence as the Asian giant is a very polarising force. Be it in academia, politics, street talk and worse, mainstream media, views on China are laced with bias, and outright misrepresentations at times depending on which side of the ‘China debate’ each belligerent is. For example, according to the UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) report, China will overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously forecast. Yet in October 2020, some reports asserted that ‘measured by the more refined yardstick that both the IMF and CIA now judge to be the single best metric for comparing national economies, the IMF Report shows that China’s economy is one-sixth larger than America’s ($24.2 trillion versus the U.S.’s $20.8 trillion).’ But according to Jeffrey Frankel, despite World Bank figures, the US remains far ahead of China in the metric that counts. It is not the intention of this paper to discuss these contradictions but what cannot be contested is that China has become a global force to reckon with. China has transformed from a developing to a wealthy country. At the turn of the millennium, Zimbabwe’s ‘Look East’ policy coincided with China’s ‘Going Out’ strategy. Zimbabwe claims that it will learn from China and hopes to achieve middle-income status by 2030.

The myth of Chinese ‘non-intervention

China has invested heavily in Africa to the extent that it can longer be disinterested in the direction of politics and economics in the continent if it is to safeguard its investments and interests. This has blown away the long-held belief that China’s foreign policy is non-interventionist and unconditional. As an authoritarian power, its influence on Zimbabwe’s politics is therefore profound. China has been heavily linked to the November 2017 Zimbabwe coup that saw the removal of long-serving ruler Robert Mugabe. A visit to Beijing just a few days prior by Zimbabwe’s then military chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, fuelled suspicions that China may have given the green light to the army takeover in Harare. In 2017, at the age of 93, Mugabe was no longer physically, cognitively and mentally able to lead the country effectively. Behind his back and under his nose, party and military elites  were entering into self-enriching deals with China. As Staden and Alden have argued, President Mnangagwa, and vice-president Chiwenga have been enriched via such joint deals. The economy was in shambles whilst his party was seriously divided between two feuding factions over his succession. This presented an existential threat to foreign investment and China is Zimbabwe’s major investor.

Additionally, Between 2005 and 2021, China poured $1,95bn in investment and $8,32bn in construction projects. China is so invested in the mining, agriculture, energy, and construction sectors to an extent it cannot afford to be a mere bystander in the internal dynamics of Zimbabwe. In January 2014, Patrick Chinamasa (then Mugabe’s Finance Minister), returned to Zimbabwe empty handed after failing to convince the Chinese to lend Zimbabwe money as the Chinese demanded more tangible guarantees on loan repayment. In 2016, China was reported to be unsettled by the controversial indigenisation policy which required all foreign companies to cede at least 51% to locals. Chinese authorities led international tributes when Mugabe died in 2019 based on the enduring relationship for which Mugabe was instrumental in establishing and growing, but his usefulness as their man on the ground had dissipated in 2017 or else China would have come to his rescue to avert the coup.

Veto power: China as Zimbabwe’s line of defence at the Security Council

China also acts as a guarantor of Zimbabwe against foreign aggression by deploying its veto power at the United Nations. Zimbabwe has had a very strenuous relationship with Western powers and by extension, multilateral institutions since 2002. Zimbabwean authorities argue that the sanctions are ‘racist’ dispute emanates from its brave decision to redistribute land from a few commercial white farmers to the landless black majority. On the other hand, Western powers, led by Britain allege this was a racially driven violation of private property rights in addition to the human rights situation which deteriorated throughout the country thereafter. In 2002 and 2003, the United States and Britain imposed targeted sanctions on the Government of Zimbabwe. The European Union (EU) and Australia followed suit in 2002. Canada joined the party in 2008 with the Special Economic Measures Act. As late as 2020, China was reiterating its support for the lifting of these sanctions and other restrictive measures on Zimbabwe which have been annually renewed. Besides these bilateral sanctions, from the turn of the millenium, Zimbabwe has been an almost permanent feature on the United Nations (UN) Security Council agenda for on allegations of serial violations of human rights and state-orchestrated political violence. Zimbabwe has escaped the UN Security Council censure thanks to China’s veto power. In July 2008, Russia and China vetoed a UN security council resolution calling for an arms embargo, and financial and travel restrictions on Mugabe and 13 other regime leaders. In 2018, following a disputed presidential election, China alongside Russia used their veto power to shoot down a US-led resolution on sanctions against Zimbabwe.

The Beijing Consensus: A shoe-in viable alternative for strongmen

China’s economic and political discourse, dubbed the ‘Beijing Consensus’ is influential, and political elites in countries like Zimbabwe look at it with fondness and attempt to model themselves from it for several reasons, which include a pursuit for total power through control of the economy and politics by ensuring that the state becomes the centre and is involved in everything and a disregard for, or at least, a manipulation for market forces and a free market. Zimbabwean authorities now equate economic transformation as dependent on the state’s total control and ownership of the key levers of the economy. This has given rise to what observers have deemed ‘command economics’. It started with command agriculture introduced in 2016. Currency manipulation by the Central Bank is also rife with changes so sudden that it rattles the economy with shocks. In 2021, the government decreed it was abolishing the parallel market to shore up the ailing local dollar. At a virtual summit on 7 July, 2021, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared that ‘“… our party draws lessons and inspiration from the successes achieved by the CPC. We applaud how the CPC has turned around the fortunes of China to be a global leader in a vast number of socio-economic spheres.”. Viewed as an alternative to the ‘Washington Consensus’, the Beijing Consensus according to Dustin R. Turin, emphasises innovation, pursuit of Dynamic Goals/Rejection of Per Capita GDP and Self-Determination. According to Joshua Kurlantzick, it is an authoritarian capitalist model of development with ‘steps designed to ensure that the Communist Party remains central to economic and political policy-making.’

‘Engineering One partyism by other means’

The overriding political principle in China is the centrality and supremacy of the party. The CCP dominates the state and society in China and is intolerant of those who question its right to rule. The CCP is the proto-type model for ZANU PF, the ruling party in Zimbabwe. The structure of  ZANU PF mirrors that of the CCP with a Politburo as the ruling clique of either party, a Congress every 5 years, a Central Committee which meets annually, Youth League with intra-party democracy based on Lenin’s principle of democratic centralism. They both regard each other with fondness as ‘sister parties’. In October 2020, the two parties held a webinar for senior cadres themed on “party building and economic and social development amid the ongoing efforts to contain the COVID-19 epidemic”. ZANU PF has been in power since independence in 1980, and history has shown that it plans to be in power for as long as possible, if not forever.

If ZANU PF is to fulfil its objective of being the sole governing party in Zimbabwe a la CCP, it can only do so by adopting several deliberate strategies, all with severe implications for democracy, elections, civil liberties and human rights in Zimbabwe. In preparation for the 2013 elections, for example, ZANU PF roped in the services of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to draw up strategies to revive its waning support base in Matabeleland. ZANU PF also sent its provincial chairpersons to China where, according to the Independent, they would be coached by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on political tactics to keep the former liberation movement in power. ZANU PF went on to win a landslide, after its campaign was run by what observer Blessing Miles-Tendi confirmed was ‘a network of party officials, youth and retired military officers who fought in Zimbabwe’s liberation war.’ For this reason,  authoritarianism in Zimbabwe should be understood as a function of the one-party state ideology with strategies borrowed from the CCP.

State, party and government conflation: The art of governing and controlling everything

As in the Chinese system, the state, party and government are conflated in Zimbabwe. This is a system Zimbabwe has always had in place for decades but definitely borrowed from China back then. For example, as Aaron Rwodzi has articulated, the military is an institution that people perceive as key to the sustenance of ZANU-PF hegemony since independence from Britain in 1980. To this end, individuals, entities, cartels, companies and obscure groups involved in the major sectors of the economy such as energy, agriculture, tourism, construction and mining are linked to the ruling party, government and state – which are technically a single entity. The implications for this has been a steady and assured capture of the state by a few individuals and interests (both local and foreign) to the exclusion of the rest. China facilitates this by engaging the Zimbabwean government on the basis of it’s declared foreign policy’s Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. As the key foreign investor, therefore, it facilitates this not by what it does, but what it does not do. By not voicing any concerns about this state of affairs as any responsible global power would be expected to do, China’s silence enables the plunder of national resources to continue.

Shunned by the West, Zimbabwe Looks East

In the absence of a counter-narrative that appeals to long-suffering developing countries on how they can transition to at least a middle-income status, the Chinese gospel now pervades political and economic thinking in Zimbabwe ever since the ‘Look East’ policy was enunciated in 2003. According to Victor Ojakorotu and Rumbidzai Kamidza (2018), this policy was introduced to promote Zimbabwe–China bilateral relationship as a sign of commitment by the two countries to support each other against Western governments in global dialogue engagement and platforms. During the Trump and, to some extent, the Obama administrations, the US stepped back from its traditional role of democracy promotion in Africa. On Trump’s part, he couldn’t have been clearer when anchoring his message on ‘America First’. This has given China the space to increase its influence in countries such as Zimbabwe and the rise of ‘strongmen’. Mnangagwa’s first visit outside of Africa after coming to power was to China in 2018 where he stressed that, “We must have deeper economic relations with China. We know the road that we need to follow to grow our economy.” This deepening of China reliance is likely to continue despite the recently announced US-UK ‘counter’ to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and other forms of Chinese investment. Whilst the election of Joe Biden is likely to make the US more open, no change should be expected. The return of the US under President Biden into Africa is too late to stop the Chinese juggernaut as the Asian giant effectively exploited the US’ exile from Africa in the last 2 decades to tie up African economies with loans, credit and investment deals for decades to come. The overall effect is that the relationship between the ruling elites and Chinese interests will grow at the expense of the Zimbabwean economy and its people.

Zimbabwe part of China’s vaccine diplomacy

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, China pursued a swift mask and vaccine diplomacy offensive in Africa whilst the rest of the developed world was looking out for itself. Zimbabwe is among the countries that has benefited immensely from China in its fight against COVID-19. Zimbabwe has been receiving Sinovac and Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines but at what cost? A Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG) report has detailed how ZANU PF mortgaged resources for future power by investing in the 2018 election. The personal protective equipment (PPE) and vaccine donations that flooded Zimbabwe without any transparency has led to growing fears that a further mortgaging of Zimbabwean assets and resources has taken place, in scales that only the ruling elite can know is happening behind the scenes. What has been apparent however is that Chinese investors continue to gain more influence in Zimbabwe. In the black granite mining area of Mutoko in Mashonaland East, villagers are on a collision path with Chinese mining company, Shanghai Haoying Mining Investments, which is pushing for their eviction after being allocated black granite mining claims and rights to land straddling over 168 hectares. This worsens human rights violations as locals are wantonly displaced from their ancestral lands robbing them of their livelihoods not to mention the economic benefits that should accrue to them from this natural resource.

Targeting institutions and institutionalism

Real and effective democracy can only thrive if institutions are strong. Strong institutions mitigate abuses of power and promote transparency and accountability. Conversely, these are an authoritarian regime’s worst nightmare. Evidence suggests that  Zimbabwe has imported China’s methods in dealing with this issue. In Harare, internal democracy suffers within the ruling party. Aside from removing the opportunity for change and ideas, this situation has led to the inevitable creation of ‘yes’ men and women in all party structures who exist to prop up the leadership. The 2017 coup that deposed Mugabe was caused by the lack of internal democracy in the ruling party. The succession dispute festered for years, reaching boiling point when Mugabe fired Mnangagwa his then deputy after decimating Mnangagwa’s faction in a futile bid to clear he way for the rival G-40 faction which her wife Grace belonged to. Mugabe remained at the helm of the party and country from 1980 until the age of 93 by a combination of tabooing any succession talk and purging ambitious party cadres and playing off the successions.            

Once internal democracy is dead within the ruling party, subsuming this and adapting to the national political fabric becomes easy. The constitution of Zimbabwe has a presidential limit of two 5 year terms but a possibility exists to extend through a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament, plus a popular majority through a referendum as well. However, the ZANU PF constitution is open to other  party hopefuls to challenge the incumbent for the party ticket. Two years before the elections are due, however, President Mnangagwa is already being ‘endorsed’ by the party structures. On 24 August, the ZANU PF Womens League said President Mnangagwa’s national development plan is going well, in line with his electoral promises. As such,  the wing has endorsed his candidature for the 2023 elections. The Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), another key party organ, ‘endorsed‘ him on September 11. Soon, the Youth League will dutifully follow suit. The CCP and ZANU PF meet periodically to exchange ideas. In May 2019, for example, Zanu-PF’s high powered delegation led by national chairperson Cde Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri met leaders of China’s war veterans and exchanged strategies with the CPC which also pledged US$600 000 for the construction of the ZANU PF Chitepo Ideological School.

The only opposition is a loyal opposition’

The CCP mindset when it comes to other political parties is that while opposition parties may exist, they should pass the test of being a ‘loyal opposition’. This is the case in mainland China, but this has also been even more apparent in Hong Kong. As Alex Lo has noted, ‘Beijing needs to build up a viable alternative opposition, one that can be critical of the Hong Kong government and yet be trusted to operate within bounds.’ It is not a coincidence that  Zimbabwe has adopted a similar stance. Since independence,  Mugabe made clear his intention for a one-party state system and would summon the might of the state to destroy viable opposition parties. PF ZAPU was crippled in the early 1980s never to recover, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement in the 1990s and attempts were made to visit the same fate on the Movement for Democratic Change when it was formed in 1999. Creating a phantom opposition is the new ZANU PF approach and even though there can not be evidence of China directly impacting this, it would not be completely out of place to state that ZANU PF adopts this from the Chinese system with some innovation of it’s own to suit its circumstances. This is an example of the underrated impact of China’s soft power.

ZANU PF is uncomfortable with viable opposition parties as this threatens its objective of pursuing a de-facto one-party state agenda. However, the optics of having no opposition parties at all would not be favourable. Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way have articulated why in today’s world, authoritarians acknowledge that it is far more beneficial to have opposition than not so as to provide a semblance of competitive politics. In the past year, Zimbabwe has witnessed a spectacular split of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change. A loyal opposition led by Douglas Mwonzora has emerged. It claims to be practising ‘a new type of politics’ in Zimbabwe, particularly the politics of what he calls ‘rational disputation’. Critical of other opposition parties and hardly raising any criticism of the ruling party, the engineering of a loyal opposition by ZANU PF according to the Chinese rule book is almost complete. As Far Shawn Matiashe has noted, Mnangagwa needed the Douglas Mwonzora-led opposition party, MDC-T, a faction of MDC Alliance, to pave way for the passage of the Constitutional Amendment (No. 2) that gives him authoritarian power. On September 22, 2021, ZANU PF created another puppet party so as to weaken its biggest threat, the MDC led by Nelson Chamisa.

China’s authoritarian regime provides more than economic, technological and financial assistance to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has embraced China’s digital authoritarianism to boost its track and trace capabilities. In 2018, according to the Interpreter, Zimbabwe’s government signed an agreement with Chinese AI start-up CloudWalk to deploy a national facial recognition database, “recalibrating the system for darker skin metrics”. This threatens the already constrained digital space where citizens attempt to practice political activism. Further, the media landscape in Zimbabwe is dominated by the party, state, and government with strict control of content. State media is expected to always portray the leadership in the best possible light, assume an editorial policy anchored in nationalism, and saturate its pages and airwaves with a positive spin. The government is sceptical of social media, and laws are being created to ‘govern’ this space additionally. As recently as February 2021, prominent journalist and government critic Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested for a tweet.

The fate of democracy

Many institutional changes happening in Zimbabwe are a direct and indirect product of its close affinity and cooperation with China. The fate of democracy, elections, civil liberties and human rights in Zimbabwe cannot be divorced from the umbilical cord that binds China to Zimbabwe. The breakdown of diplomatic relations between Zimbabwe and Western countries which were hitherto its key and strategic economic partners ushered in a decisive shift in Zimbabwe’s political and economic trajectory. At the end of 2021, Zimbabwe is firmly in the clutches of China’s influence. The ruling elite, motivated by a power retention agenda and all the benefits that come with it, could not have found a better country to relate with. Rich in mineral resources and investment opportunities that China needs to sustain its growing economy, Zimbabwe is happy to maximise its authoritarian  and hegemonic potential by leveraging national wealth. This relationship is expected to continue given the opaque nature of many of these deals and speculation is rife networks are much larger than is acknowledged due to lack of information and transparency. It also means that China’s influence in Zimbabwe will only grow with implications for human, social, economic, sovereign and labour rights in Zimbabwe.

Edson Ziso (@EdsonZiso) is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations, The University of Adelaide, South Australia. Find out more here.

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