ZIMBABWE needs to re-examine its relations with China — its so-called all-weather friend — in view of persistent reports concerning Chinese companies prejudicing the country of billions of dollars through non-performance or shoddy delivery in major infrastructural projects.
For many years, Zimbabwean government officials, including President Robert Mugabe, have been waxing lyrical about the country’s special relationship with China and have awarded Chinese companies lucrative projects in the construction, energy and tourism sectors.
“The Chinese government has done very well in its technology transfer to cultural and personnel exchanges with Zimbabwe as well as the whole of Africa,” Mugabe said in 2010, pleading for more co-operation in fields of trade and infrastructure, education and health.
Earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping returned the compliment, praising Mugabe for safeguarding the “sovereignty of your country” and ensuring “self-dependence and self-improvement”.
But the reality is that China has done so much to undermine that “self-dependence” through demands for minerals as security in return for loans to Mugabe’s desperate government while the “self-improvement” has been rendered a farce by Chinese companies failing to complete projects or delivering shoddy workmanship where they have finished them.
Just last week it emerged that yet another Chinese company duped the State Procurement Board (SPB) and the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) to win a tender for a contract it had no capacity to carry out.
According to state media reports, the China Machinery Engineering Company (CMEC) duped the SPB and ZPC into awarding it a billion-dollar tender for the expansion of Hwange Thermal Power Station when it did not have funds for the project.
“Problems emerged when contract negotiations started and CMEC suddenly shifted goalposts and failed to provide the funding solution as initially promised,” said ZPC public relations executive Fadzai Chisveto in a statement last Thursday.
ZPC has since cancelled the award and given it to yet another Chinese firm, Sino-Hydro — a move which might pose another challenge as the company is already contracted on the massive Kariba South Hydro Power Station project.
The CMEC joins a long list of Chinese companies that have duped government, failed to deliver or delivered sub-standard projects.
Even Mugabe has complained that “the Chinese … are coming into the country with their families and employing each other. We do not want that. Even if they are our friends we will not allow that”.
So, if the displeasure over shoddy projects has been registered at the highest level, why is it that they continue unabated?
Is it not time Zimbabwe evaluated the so-called special relationship which seems rather lopsided in that it lines the pockets of Chinese companies at Zimbabwe’s expense?
The China that shows its face in Zimbabwe is certainly different and a far cry from the China that is associated with successful and high quality huge infrastructural developments the world over. That Zimbabwe is an exception suggests that the problem lies with this country rather than with the Asian Tiger. This calls for a re-evaluation of the way this country structures its deals with China or any other country for that matter.
According to University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure, Zimbabwe needs to review its relationship with China.
“Bilateral relationships are not permanent and must be subject to constant review,” said Masunungure. “The problem with Sino-Zimbabwe relations is that they have been more political than economic. This is where we get duped because we have failed to re-cast our dealings with the Chinese in purely economic terms.”
Masunungure may well be right in view of the actions of the Chinese leaders in overlooking Zimbabwe on their visits to Africa which suggests that while diplomatic relations may be sound, Zimbabwe is not considered a serious economic partner.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang ignored Zimbabwe during his African tour in May preferring to visit Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya.
Another political analyst, Godwin Phiri, concurred with Masunungure on the need for Zimbabwe to re-think its relations with China, adding that the country’s desperation for international partners due to its pariah status is one of the main reasons it continues to be exploited.
“Yes, they (Chinese) can deliver high quality infrastructural projects,” said Phiri, adding, “You only have to look at the kind of products they deliver to Europe and America to know that the Chinese are right up there with the best in terms of workmanship and service delivery.”
Phiri said the problem in Zimbabwe is that the Chinese are taking advantage of the Zanu PF government’s desperation for international investment due to its estrangement from erstwhile Western allies.
“Zimbabwe is looking for international partners outside the West as a result of targeted measures or sanctions over alleged human rights abuses and it makes sense to turn to China which is not fussy about such issues. Their (Chinese) long association with Zanu PF dating back to the liberation war and now through the Look East policy have allowed the Chinese to subvert the country’s laws and do as they please.”
Apart from CMEC who completely failed to deliver, there are other Chinese companies like Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Corporation (Afecc) that have been guilty of defective projects.
No sooner had Afecc finished their controversial Long Cheng Plaza last year on a wetland in Harare’s Belvedere suburb than reports began to filter about structural defects.
Ironically, Long Cheng Plaza is adjacent to the National Sports Stadium, another Chinese project which at one time was reportedly in danger of collapsing due to structural defects and had to be closed for repairs for 20 months.
China Jiangxi International Corporation (China Jiangxi) won the tender to construct Kunzvi Dam to supply Harare’s water needs back in May 2007, but the company has failed to deliver. Last year, then water resources minister Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, announced that the project had been taken away from China Jiangxi and awarded to yet another Chinese company, Avik International.
This suggests that apart from re-examining Sino-Zimbabwe relations, Zimbabwe should also carry out due diligence of prospective business partners.
For Mukasiri Sibanda, Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association finance officer, the problem lies less with the Chinese, but has more to do with the country’s deeply entrenched culture of corruption in negotiating tenders, with the Chinese or any other potential investors.
“The problem lies with us and it is our failure to carry out due diligence and allowing few individuals to line their pockets at the expense of the nation. Contracts are being awarded to undeserving companies in return for kick-backs.”
Sibanda has a point in that the failure to carry out due diligence was at the centre in the ill-fated case of the CMEC tender as it reportedly “took the SPB and ZPC officials more than a year to realise that the Chinese company did not have the funds to carry out the project”.
As long as corruption and self-interest are not reined in, Zimbabwe will continue being taken advantage of in tender negotiations and the awarding of contracts not just by the Chinese, but by other investors.