What Does Mugabe’s Resignation Mean for China?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On November 15, soldiers placed the 93-year-old Robert Mugabe under house arrest. Mugabe had ruled Zimbabwe since the country gained independence in 1980. On November 21, he resigned after 37 years in power. China, Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor and one of its most important allies, offered a measure of public support for the move: A foreign ministry spokesman said the situation wouldn’t change the two countries’ relationship. Moreover, an early November visit to China by Zimbabwe’s army commander Constantino Chiwenga raised speculation that the military asked Beijing’s permission—or at least notified the Chinese—before moving against Mugabe. As Mugabe’s former allies take over, how important is China’s support? And what do situations like Zimbabwe’s mean for China’s longstanding stated policy of non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs? —The Editors


China has been Zimbabwe’s most important non-African partner throughout most of the 21st century. The imposition of Western sanctions on Zimbabwe early in the century set the scene for this development. China’s close ties with Robert Mugabe date back to 1963, when the Zimbabwe African National Union split from the Zimbabwe African People’s Union. A self-described Maoist and Marxist-Leninist by the 1970s, Mugabe became prime minister of Zimbabwe upon independence in 1980. China recognized Zimbabwe on its Independence Day and has had close relations with Mugabe ever since.

Zimbabwe’s army chief, Constantino Chiwenga, visited Beijing less than two weeks before the army removed Mugabe. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry described Chiwenga’s visit as “a normal military exchange,” the timing was hardly coincidental. At a minimum, Chiwenga shared with Chinese officials plans to remove Mugabe and he probably sought and obtained a “green light” from China, which has been the army’s principal supplier of military equipment. In its public comments, however, China has been careful to avoid any appearance of interfering in Zimbabwe’s internal affairs.

Following the removal of Mugabe, China’s support for Zimbabwe will be essential. Mugabe’s replacement, former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is not a favorite in the West. United States sanctions placed on him in 2003 continue. Zimbabwe’s economy is in shambles and, over the short term, will be heavily dependent on help from China, which will almost certainly come to its aid.

As China expands its interests and physical presence in Africa, it increasingly finds itself facing difficult situations such as the removal of a close ally in Zimbabwe. There are at any given time between one and two million Chinese nationals living or working in Africa. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Chinese companies have branches or operations on the continent. As a result, Chinese personnel and interests are more likely to be at the wrong place at the wrong time or even be targeted, as has happened in Sudan, Algeria, and the Niger Delta. China’s wakeup call came in 2011 with the with the fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya. China had to evacuate on short notice 36,000 Chinese nationals, mostly contract construction workers.

China has been pushing the limits of its non-interference policy since the run-up to the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing. It experienced considerable pressure from the West to convince Sudan, where China has extensive investments in the oil sector and strongly supports the government, to change its position on the conflict in Darfur. In mid-2008, former President Hu Jintao, in order to prevent potential Olympic boycotts, bluntly told the Sudanese government that it must accept the hybrid African Union-United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur. China subsequently was surprisingly proactive in efforts to end the civil war in South Sudan, where it also has significant oil interests. Sudan, South Sudan, and now Zimbabwe test the definition of China’s non-interference policy.

I believe the Chinese government will not interfere and does not really care who leads Zimbabwe. Any leader of Zimbabwe would definitely see China as an important partner, as China’s support is growing more significant in Africa. Based on my research on the ground in Africa, China always is very pragmatic. China is willing to give to and work with African countries as long as it gets what it wants in return. Therefore, “who” does not matter as long as the leader can represent his country and is willing to cooperate. In many situations, China maintains good relationships with different candidates and different parties in African countries.

Chinese communities in Zimbabwe are quite supportive of Mugabe’s departure. In fact, they have been waiting for this moment to happen: given the history of Zimbabwe, they know Zimbabwe could be a very successful country with the right management and policies. Many Chinese have invested in Zimbabwe, buying land and so on, and planned to settle in this country for a long time. They believe they could benefit from a better regime that may offer a better foreign investment policy. It is reasonable to suspect that the Chinese state also would support a regime change. However, China won’t take the risks of getting involved in preparing such a coup. Obviously, it is wise to work with whoever wins.

One of the interesting aspects of the current situation in Zimbabwe is that it reveals how central China has become in the global discussion of African affairs. While China is certainly a key partner to Zimbabwe, it is striking how Western press discussion has fixated on the role of China compared to other key foreign stakeholders in Zimbabwe, including the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the Southern African Development Community. The fact that China occupies such a central position in this discussion is partly due to its prominence in the Zimbabwean economy, but it also arguably reveals Western preoccupations about China’s growing global role.

However, this reporting also risks flattening the complexity of Chinese engagement in Zimbabwe. To my mind, the Zimbabwean changeover provides the opportunity to unpack what we really mean when we talk about “China” in the African context. This is because Chinese influence there isn’t monolithic. Rather, several different Chinese actors have been involved in Zimbabwe through the decades. In fact, what seems like a long stable relationship between China and Robert Mugabe, or ZANU-PF, in fact becomes a mirror of several different Chinas, from the post-Bandung revolutionary state supporting anti-colonial struggles overseas, to the current global economic power seeking stable global value chains.

In addition, the Zimbabwean case reveals a more complex China than the one seen in many other African contexts, because of the complex relationships between military and party elites on both sides, as well as the involvement of various Chinese firms, both small and large. A notable wild card in the latter category was the involvement of the shadowy China International Fund, whose head, Sam Pa, was alleged to be deeply involved in ferrying high grade diamonds from the Marange diamond fields. Sam Pa was finally arrested in Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, neatly revealing the real complexity of China’s presence in Zimbabwe, and Africa as a whole.

While “China” is a useful shorthand term when discussing Africa’s external relationships, the Zimbabwean case also reveals that this kind of shorthand only goes so far. I would argue that the changeover in Zimbabwe should be the occasion to unpack some of the real complexity of China’s presence in Africa, and to distinguish between various Chinese actors, and to map their complex relationships with African actors. In the case of Zimbabwe, these would include the state apparatuses in Beijing and Harare, party elites and military elites on both sides, Chinese arms manufacturers, illicit and criminal trade networks, various smaller Chinese firms, as well as the personal histories of leaders such as Emmerson Mnangagwa, who received military training in Maoist China. I would argue that untangling the puzzle of what Chinese non-interference means at present depends on first untangling what “China” means.

Though not in the headlines, China is operating in an East African region that is becoming increasingly autocratic and authoritarian. The East Africa region in this article refers to the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia. It can be argued that in the region, Kenya is the only viable democracy left.

President Kagame of Rwanda has made headlines in the region for what appears to be the open targeting of Diane Rwigara who tried to run against him in elections earlier this year. Ethiopia has been ruled by the same party since 1991, with marked intolerance of opposition, evidenced in the imprisonment of political dissidents. Uganda has been under the hand of Museveni for well over 30 years, and in Burundi the International Federation for Human Rights claims the crisis there has left at least 1,200 dead and 10,000 imprisoned for political reasons. In Tanzania, the chief whip of the opposition party was shot, opposition figures have disappeared and, in September, President Magafuli closed a third newspaper since June as part of a media crackdown.

The trend towards autocracy and authoritarianism in the region cannot be ignored and will have several implications for China. The first is that while it could be argued that it is easier for China to work with governments that do not have to deal with the complications of a robust democracy, there is growing unrest in domicile populations in the region. And although authoritarian East African governments may assure China and the Chinese private sector, that unrest is being ‘managed’, the reality is that it can grow to unmanageable levels, compromising Chinese investments. The Chinese private sector is already feeling the pinch where both last year and this year, protesters in Ethiopia destroyed Chinese factories and assets in anti-government protests.

The second concern China should have is that it is the very authoritarianism in the region that may make countries more difficult to deal with because decisions can be made unilaterally with no consultation or explanation given. It is possible that such decisions could negatively affect Chinese interests in the region and, given the strong arm of government in most of the region, trying to seek redress through legal means would likely be futile. Further, China has branded itself through its non-interference policy. Will this position change if the action of authoritarian governments threaten Chinese investments in the region?

Finally, Zimbabwe provides an important lesson for China. China put all of its eggs in the basket of Mugabe’s autocratic rule. With Mugabe no longer in rule, there is surely concern as to how China will protect its investments and economic position in the country. And this is the fundamental problem with China continuing to interact with openly authoritarian governments; China can never be sure that the next ruler will treat them as well as his predecessor did. Will China be prioritized in Zimbabwe as other economically powerful countries and companies jostle to enter the country?

It will be interesting and see how both the Chinese government and private sector continue to operate in a region of growing autocracy and authoritarianism both of which pose considerable risks to China’s investments in the region.