There’s no free lunch in China

LAST year I spent three weeks in China’s richest province, Zhejiang, where per capita income exceeds US$10 000. The place has produced 72 billionaires, the second highest number in the world, after California’s 92.

Editor’s Memo Brezhnev Malaba

One of the first lessons I quickly learnt in China is that their work ethic differs immensely from ours.

They believe in hard work, innovation, self-reliance and are deeply opposed to corruption. There is no free lunch in China; if you want something, you must earn it.
I was reminded of this brutal reality by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s much-publicised trip to China. He went to Beijing to ask for a US$2,5 billion economic bailout package. From all indications, he returned to Harare yesterday without the money.

African countries must be advised never to attend the Forum for China-Africa Co-operation unprepared. I watched in disbelief as the Zambian delegation sat like helpless zombies in a meeting with Chinese bureaucrats.

Seated along one side of the lengthy table, the Zambians had neither pen nor paper in front of them, yet the Chinese delegation was busy jotting down notes as the discussion progressed. Our neighbours looked like political tourists. The Chinese are consummate deal-makers. They will have you for lunch and wipe the floor with you if you display amateurish tendencies.

The Zimbabwean delegation to China was ill-prepared. And the odds of success were daunting: how do you seek to borrow US$20 from someone you already owe US$100, and after defaulting on your promises to repay?

When Robert Mugabe was overthrown in a military coup, his dramatic ouster generated immense international goodwill for Zimbabwe, and everyone thought the country had a glorious opportunity to attract foreign investment and embark on the tough task of rebuilding a shattered and decimated economy.

The matter seemed simple and straightforward: to pull the country out of the gutter, just organise a free, fair and credible election. Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former enforcer who has painstakingly sought to portray himself as a reformist, has repeatedly said all the right things. But when it came to the all-important test, the men who rule Zimbabwe were found wanting. Although the countdown to the July 30 elections was relatively peaceful, a fiercely disputed outcome and the bloody aftermath have dragged the nation back into the cesspool of perpetual intrigue.

In the post-election period, we have witnessed an alarming deterioration in the economy. Prices are shooting up, a forex crunch is throttling the private sector, and collapsing companies are abandoning workers, stoking a paralysing sense of fear and hopelessness.

Political legitimacy is the bedrock of economic confidence. Without it, there is no difference between Zimbabwe and Somalia.

For Zimbabwe to attain middle-income status by 2030, the economy must grow at a rate of at least 9,5% per annum. That’s no mean feat.

Cambridge economic strategist Mthuli Ncube has outlined three ideas which could jumpstart the economy: craft a debt plan, tackle the currency question, and ramp up job creation.
During his well-funded election campaign, Mnangagwa made hundreds of promises to the electorate but, for purposes of progress, I will look at just one of his pledges so that we objectively assess whether he can ever fulfil his promises.

The most prominent of his promises was to “put job creation first”. Unemployment is easily one of Zimbabwe’s biggest headaches.

The country has the second most informalised economy in the world after Bolivia, according to the International Monetary Fund. An astonishing 60,6% economically active Zimbabweans are eking out a living in the informal sector. These millions of people in the shadow economy—which the outgoing Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa chooses to describe as “the new economy”—have no social safety nets to fall back on. They have no savings, no pension, no medical aid, no labour rights, no recourse to financial inclusion, no insurance, and are vulnerable to corruption and a diminishing quality of life.

Can Mnangagwa’s government rise to the occasion and rescue the impoverished masses?