Gleeful western charges of Chinese imperialism at play in Zimbabwe

Jul 1, 2011

China's growing role in Africa has allowed some Western commentators to play the new role of being the continent's defenders against the emerging eastern giant's perceived imperialism. Zimbabwe's particular isolation from the west and poor image there make it a convenient example.

Writing in the Atlantic magazine of June 2011, Max Fisher under the heading In Zimbabwe, Chinese Investment With Hints of Colonialism really went to town in portraying Zimbabwe, "impoverished pariah state, isolated by President Robert Mugabe's violent suppression of dissent," as having "put more and more of its economy and natural resources under Chinese control."

He goes on a fairly detailed tour of recent published reports about the many areas of cooperation between China and Zimbabwe, naturally with an interpretation that backs up his premise. The Chinese have "near exclusive control of everything from mineral rights to labor standards" and he has inside information that he does not cite that they are investing, "both in Zimbabwean infrastructure and in Mugabe's personal accounts."

Many Zimbabweans recognize how much Chinese help and support helped when the country was at its lowest point, and largely cut off from the West. The isolation may have been meant to remove Mugabe or at least bring him to heel, but the many resulting effects hit all Zimbabweans. The deprivation and suffering that was at its worst in 2008 would have undoubtedly been much worse without Chinese support. But at the same time, many Zimbabweans are also extremely uneasy about the cost of that Chinese support, and many would agree with much of Fisher's thesis.

But Mugabe-hysteria in many western media circles has been so shrill that when one reads a definitive statement such as " Mugabe's accounts" without any supporting basis, one wonders whether to approach the article as serious analysis, or to dismiss it as that hysteria, of which there has been plenty because Mugabe wrong-presses so many western buttons so effectively.  

Fisher can't quite make up his mind how to characterize the Chinese role in Zimbabwe. The heading mentions 'hints of colonialism,' but he then later declares, 'Zimbabwe is far from a Chinese colony. '  In the next sentence he vouches for the nation's political and military sovereignty, but then seems to backtrack again by finding it 'harder to distinguish the nation's independence as China's economic hold tightens.'

Again, the basic uncertainty and apprehension about the meaning of the relationship is shared by many Zimbabweans, but Fisher has in a rather fitful way decided that although Zimbabwe is not quite a colony of China, well, it sort of actually is a colony of China. One can almost see the gears in his brain trying to make up his mind.

This is not to deny the thoroughness of his online research of some of the hot recent issues in the growing China-Zimbabwe relationship, and particularly the fraught areas of the growing cooperation. He touches on recent reports of complaints about poor working conditions in Chinese-run enterprises, as well as the 'special status' that Chinese are resentfully said to enjoy when reported to the authorities for one violation or another.

Although the Chinese engagement is getting a lot of coverage, his contention that they "control much of Zimbabwe's economy" is simply not backed up by facts. In mining, they have pole position only in the new area of diamonds extraction, with the rest of Zimbabwe's mining sector still dominated by western and South African players. Chinese products are locking up the consumer goods market, but in the same way they are doing so pretty much all over Africa and many countries elsewhere, by being price-accessible to a portion of the population who have been largely locked out of the new goods market.

Trade volumes between the two countries were US$520 million in 2010, significant and set to grow rapidly as Chinese companies get into mining and deeper into agriculture, but hardly of the 'economic grip' variety.

China has emerged as a key supporter and market of Zimbabwe's tobacco and cotton sectors, pre-financing farmers and providing an important new market for them. These are the kinds of support that western companies are not interested in for the small scale farmers that dominate these sectors, so these are parts of China's 'economic grip' that are welcomed. 

Fisher mentions a controversial deal in which China is said to have made a finance-desperate Zimbabwe a cash advance of $3 billion in return for platinum concessions said to be worth $40 billion. With 'his regime so isolated from the international community, there are few other sources of investment,' Fisher explains, which is true.

However, what is becoming increasingly clear as the controversy over the violent land reform that principally accounts for Mugabe's poor reputation in the West dies down, is that his regime's isolation is not so much from 'the international community,' but from the US and western Europe. That Fisher conflates the two is very American. But one effect of that is that it denies those of Fisher's readers who may not be well informed about the Zimbabwe issue the benefit of understanding why Mugabe has support and sympathy in a significant part of the non-western world. Whether they buy those reasons or not, it would add a significant level to their understanding of a very different narrative to what the issues at stake in Zimbabwe are.

Fisher's article is an easy, believable read for the average western reader who has been fed the standard media diet that 'the issue in Zimbabwe is that Mugabe is a super-naturally bad guy who our (western) governments disapprove of for that reason.' This is a palatable but grossly simplified and misleading dis-service to those of his readers who might want to know all the main competing positions on what is really at stake in Zimbabwe, and why the events in this little country have so particularly inflamed emotions far and wide. Fisher buys and is satisfied with, 'Mugabe is 'bad;' he is therefore cut off from the 'good' West, and that's why he is now selling his country to the 'bad' Chinese, case closed.' You don't have to be a lover of Mugabe's to appreciate that the situation is far more complex than that.   

If Fisher tends to automatically interpret the growing Sino-Zim ties alarmingly, he does end on a calm cautionary note that will be shared by many people in Zimbabwe and the many other countries in which China has suddenly burst into a position of influence. He wonders at what point and how Chinese economic influence could be leveraged into other kinds of more sinister influence. This is an important issue that many regimes, including but not limited to Mugabe's, are currently not concerned enough about. They are too busy reveling in their relief at finally having an alternative to relations with western countries that were historically fraught and increasingly thought to be heavy-handed in a way those with China are not, but may yet become.     

Fisher's article is fairly detailed and mostly quite accurate in laying out the basic facts of the Chinese growing influence in Zimbabwe. He unfortunately steers completely clear of looking at the ways in which the locals have benefited from the relationship and are likely to do so in future, and is only interested in the areas that Zimbabweans have complaints and fears about. That might fit the pre-conceptions of many of his readers, but at the cost of denying them a fuller understanding of why China is making such huge strides even in countries run by governments that are not western pariahs like Mugabe's.  

China is upsetting the apple cart everywhere, from African countries trying to figure out how to benefit without getting run over, to western countries that find their previous unquestioned domination of poor countries swept away. It seems the new China on the march is a confusing, sometimes frightening phenomenon for all.

The Zimbabwe Review


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