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New perspectives: Why look East when China itself looks West?

By Masimba Manyanya & Mary Nyadome

IN the 1960s-1970s Africa’s newly independent states were decidedly socialist (East/left) in their ideological and policy orientation.

Market reforms or structural adjustments in the 1970s/1980s impacted a right (West/capitalist) orientation that desecrated the temples of political independence.

Many tried again to squeeze out through Look East Policies (LEP) in the 1990s into the 21st Century.

Since 2018 Zimbabwe is swinging back again to the West, in what appears a determined effort to re-engage Western leaders.

In 2022 the growing Chinese presence across Africa is quite visible, and controversial.  It would seem from the 1950s when the Chinese first appeared in Africa, through the 1970s and 1980s, China is determined to literally overwhelm Africa.

In 2014, China was Africa’s largest creditor, accounting for 14% of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock. Estimates say by 2030 China will account for more than 50% of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock.

Policy and socio-economic justice activists, Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) state that Chinese programmes are out of sync with local African development priorities.

Exactly what is the meaning of Chinese expansion in the context of Zimbabwe’s quest for a sustainable economy and for social economic justice?

In terms of scale of involvement, over the years since the 1950s, China competes with the West. The difference between China and the West is that historically China is not formally associated with political colonisation in Africa.

The phenomenal expansion of Chinese activities in Africa can be traced to gaps in Western involvement, specifically, deficiencies in Western investment trade and aid regimes.

For instance, through the “Angola Model” Chinese loan financing to Africa is linked to securing the continent’s natural resources. The Angola Model entails providing low-interest loans to nations (with low credit ratings), who rely on commodities, such as oil or mineral resources, as collateral.

Such countries would ordinarily experience difficulties accessing funding from the international financial markets. But does this not also mean that Africa’s vast natural heritage, the continent’s primary source of competitive advantage in this world, is at risk of being mortgaged through the non-transparent, opaque, contracts that characterise Chinese deals?

In 2003, then-Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe announced the LEP Policy; a reaction to Western sanctions against the country. Expressing support for the “swing left” the then CEO of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce, Innocent Makwiramiti initially remarked:  “Given that Zimbabwe’s traditional trading partners in the European Union and the United States have drastically scaled down…

“It is natural for the government to look elsewhere in order to save the country from total collapse”.

Following the announcement of the LEP various commercial and loan agreements were signed in exchange for trade and mineral concessions.

There were also unprecedented influxes into Zimbabwe of Chinese goods, and also businesspeople who established retail shops in Harare and around the country, mostly selling cheap electrical goods, clothes, blankets, toys and beauty products.

But in 2013, economist John Robertson noted in an interview with IRIN that it was vital the government mended its relations with the West to revive the economy.

“China itself is looking to the West, and there is no way we can sustain our economy by limiting trade to China, or one or two other Asian countries, because that will give the country short-lived relief…

“Let’s make sure that we talk to the IMF so that it can resume financial assistance, for that is how we could once again get steady forex inflows.”

Reinforcing this view, analysts Victor Ojakorotu and Rumbidzai Kamidza, point out that Zimbabwe’s LEP “had vested interests in close economic and political relationships with China, (which) was detrimental to interests of Zimbabwean people” (2018).

In the aftermath of the 2017 coup that deposed Mugabe, new Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a new left-right policy shift; “Re-engagement with the West”.

But a correspondent with Economic Times India Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, was quick to ask; “Is anyone noticing that Zimbabwe is (already) under complete Chinese control? China’s power and clout in Zimbabwe (is clear) from the fact that in spite of numerous cases of rampant abuse by Chinese employers of the local labour force no measures are taken by the Zimbabwe government.

“Things continue to deteriorate (oftentimes) local employees are shot dead by Chinese employers at a mine after labourers demanded their legitimate wage payments”.

This maybe explaining why in 2005 the then ZNCC chief, Makwiramiti did an about turn; “The Chinese are demanding international commercial rates for whatever services they would be rendering to Zimbabwe – nothing is coming for free or at preferential rates, and if we do not find ways of generating forex we might find ourselves in a worse situation soon.”

Overwhelming evidence of Chinese atrocities proves failure of the Chinese to pay any heed to Zimbabwean law, the citizens’ legal rights, instead discriminating them from the onsite Chinese miners through lowly wages and despicable conditions of employment.

Evidence abounds of Chinese employers assaulting local employees, often forcing them to operate in dangerous, inhuman, harsh and life-threatening slave like conditions.

The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions sought to address the Chinese issue and also the complacency of the Zimbabwean authorities on Chinese atrocities.

ZCTU Secretary General Japhet Moyo has threatened to escalate the matter of workers’ rights and “ . . . the right to live with dignity to the international level to ensure that the Zimbabwe government and the Chinese factory/mine owners with whom they seem to have colluded bring out measures to get rid of the systematic abuses or slave-like conditions of local workers.” (ZCTU, 2018)

Traditional leaders have also raised their voices. In 2020, Chief Chiweshe accused the Chinese of looting vast chrome and gold resources.

The chief, particularly, named the Chinese company Afrochine for destroying the iconic world heritage site Mavuradonha, also desecrating local sacred places.

Then there was also the case of the Chinese invasion of black-granite-rich Mutoko communal lands in 2021.

On December 25, 2021, the state newspaper The Herald newspaper reported Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt of China bought the controlling interest in Zimbabwe’s Arcadia Lithium Mine  in Goromonzi from Prospect Resources of Australia, for US$377,8 million.

Then on February 10, 2022 China’s Sinomine Corporation reportedly spent US$180 million for a 74% controlling stake in Zimbabwe’s first lithium project, Bikita Lithium Mine in Masvingo. (https://newzwire.live).

Interesting to see how Africa, generally and specifically Zimbabwe can autonomously grow, resisting what certainly looks like a Chinese invasion.

Economic policy and economic/social justice activists, Zimcodd, question Chinese miners’ compliance with environmental, corporate tax and Corporate Social Responsibility responsibilities.   Because Chinese mining activities in Zimbabwe are generally associated with adverse labour, social and environmental impacts.

In 2018, Zimcodd called on the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) to order the closure of Chinese nationals’ owned shops, which are not accepting “plastic money” around the country.

Addressing these various concerns Ojakorotu and Kamidza state Zimbabwe’s failure to yield satisfying results from the Chinese bilateral relations traces back to “…political and economic weaknesses of the Zimbabwean leadership”.

The LEP remains a weak foreign policy directive because “it was never formally and publicly developed and disseminated to key stakeholders and the general public”, meaning it has remained “largely an oral secret public policy statement (affecting) the interests of Zimbabwean economy and interested stakeholders”.

They further note “for as long as Zimbabwe continues to deny engaging with other superpowers and global institutions, the LEP remains doomed as China (retains) disproportionate spaces to manipulate and exploit relationships knowing that Zimbabwe has no other (recourses) for development and cooperation.”

  • Manyanya and Nyadowe are policy analysts. These weekly New Perspectives articles, published in the Zimbabwe Independent, are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). — kadenge,zes@gmail.com or mobile: +263 772 382 852.

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