PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe was in China this week to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping at a time when the local economy is on a tailspin.
Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya
Of course, it was not the first time Mugabe had visited Beijing. He had been to China twice during the liberation struggle when he behaved like a self-styled Maoist although he didn’t get to meet Mao himself. From 1980 to date, he officially visited China 11 times and managed to meet the late Deng Xiaoping on three occasions.
Deng was instrumental in China’s economic reconstruction following the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. He introduced broad market reforms and spearheaded China’s rise despite resistance by die-hard Maoists.
Having inherited a divided society fraught with instability during a turbulent transition from the Mao era, Deng became architect of a new brand of socialist thinking, balancing the Communist Party’s ideological imperatives with pragmatic market economic policies. Consequently, China rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
Mugabe was in China the whole of this week looking for a comprehensive financial rescue package, funding for projects and investment.
So Zimbabwe and China signed a raft of deals spanning energy, roads, national railway network, telecommunications, agriculture and tourism.
A Master Loan Agreement was also signed to provide a framework for funding development projects.
Hopefully, Mugabe’s visit will yield something tangible. His previous trips did not yield much.
Zimbabwe’s overall interactions with China, though, over the past decade have brought meaningful economic benefits, suggesting at its most crude level the Look East policy, a reaction to Western isolation, is working.
But China’s actions have to be understood in a global context. Beijing launched the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in 2000 as part and parcel of a global strategy based on multilateralism and South-South collaboration, symbolised by the Brics arrangement, to secure reforms to the international system.
The US and European Union reacted with their own arrangements with Africa.
So Zimbabwe, as a country with a tiny US$10 billion economy (Shoprite’s annual turnover) in a global economy worth over US$70 trillion, is not a key factor in the broad scheme of things even though Harare is making some rich pickings in the process.
Hence, trade volumes shot up to US$1,1 billion from US$562 million in 2010. Preferential and concessionary loans from China now amount to US$1 billion, and grants and interest-free loans US$100 million.
These are great things even if they are also sweeteners to mortgaging the country.
Although close ties with China help, the real issue is embracing reform and creating a good investment climate through leadership renewal and policy consistency.
While Mugabe was in China reports said Beijing was worried about keeping itself as the first choice international investment destination. The country is looking for investment from all corners of the globe. That is why its Premier Li Keqiang was in Britain in May.
Mugabe must understand the new matrices and nuances of global politics and economics. Remaining frozen in the Cold War era or handcuffed to the past, while shouting archaic mantras won’t help. His absence from the EU-Africa and US-Africa summits showed Zimbabwe is still isolated and needs to re-engage.
Mugabe must learn from China’s pragmatic approach. The idea is not for him to go to Beijing to seek refuge from isolation and bring back piles of agreements and bags of trinkets, but to learn how modern economies work and are run.
Commenting on the role of ideology in economics, Deng famously said: “I don’t care if a cat is white or black so long as it catches mice”. That should be the starting point for Mugabe.