Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa traveled to Beijing this week for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Mnangagwa thanked Xi for his support, promised to strengthen Zimbabwe’s ties with China, and pledged to implement “Xi Jinping Thought” in Zimbabwe as quickly as possible.
As the Associated Press points out, Zimbabwe’s relations with China has been a bit delicate since the coup that ended dictator Robert Mugabe’s four decades in power, because Mugabe and his wife Grace systematically looted their impoverished country and laundered some of their wealth through China.
The international community initially embraced Mugabe as a dashing Marxist revolutionary and the first black leader of independent Zimbabwe. Some of his admirers hung on even after the European community grew sick of him and began treating him as an illegitimate gangster king. Through it all, China remained his only staunch ally, along with Beijing’s client states like North Korea, which trained and led Mugabe’s army.
After a soft coup finally overthrew Mugabe last November, his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa drew up a list of “looters” in China who exploited Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule. The Chinese deputy envoy in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare blew his stack in a ten-minute rant at a press briefing last week, denouncing the list as “not credible” and filled with “many loopholes.”
“We respect President Mnangagwa, follow his guidance but need to resolve the issue. But many people are arguing that the list is a violation of the law,” Deputy Envoy Zhao Bogang declared.
Zhao reminded Zimbabweans that there are “few or no Americans” on Mnangagwa’s list of looters because Americans have not been investing in Zimbabwe, unlike China.
“Some Western politicians come to Africa and point fingers at the Chinese from airports and buildings constructed by the Chinese. We don’t care and nobody is going to stop the trajectory our relationship with Zimbabwe is taking. If you do nothing you are a saint, you do not make mistakes,” he mused.
Zhao wrapped up his stemwinder by advising Zimbabweans to “have a clear sight of who is their friend,” versus “who is trying to poison the relationship.”
There are also lingering suspicions among Mugabe loyalists that China approved or even engineered the November coup, possibly because Beijing was not thrilled with the notion of Mugabe’s greedy and mercurial wife Grace taking over as his designated successor. These theories hold that China was particularly concerned about protecting its investments in Zimbabwe’s diamond mines, and thanks to its strong ties with the Zimbabwean military, it saw Mnangagwa as a much more reliable business partner.
Mnangagwa, a veteran “liberation fighter” from the Sixties who received his military training in China and fled there when Mugabe sacked him as vice-president, jetted off to Beijing to shore up Zimbabwe’s relationship with China and soothe any lingering Chinese ire about his pursuit of economic predators from the Mugabe era. It seems to have gone well, as agreements were signed in Beijing to provide economic assistance and emergency food aid to Zimbabwe.
“You are an old friend of China and I appreciate your efforts to develop relations in all areas,” Xi told Mnangagwa on Tuesday.
“Last November Zimbabwe achieved a peaceful, smooth transfer of power that was broadly recognized by the international community,” said Xi. “I am willing to work with Mr. President to jointly map out our future cooperation and write a new chapter in China-Zimbabwe relations for the benefit of our two peoples.”
On his way to Beijing, Mnangagwa told Chinese reporters he was grateful for China’s support “during the hard times when the West imposed sanctions on us.” He said he was eager to tap China’s financial resources and technological expertise to revive Zimbabwe’s economy.
China is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Zimbabwean infrastructure as part of its massive “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative. Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put great emphasis on warning African leaders that China’s money would come with strings attached.
After meeting with the Chinese president, Mnangagwa hailed “Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” and promised to “take this mantra to Zimbabwe and hope to develop some socialism in Zimbabwe with Zimbabwean characteristics.” Xi Jinping Thought is the name given to Xi’s contributions to Chinese Communist philosophy, as written into party documents and taught to Chinese schoolchildren.
Zimbabwean media has criticized Mnangagwa for splurging on luxury charter air travel to China, as well as other visits to South Africa and Davos, Switzerland, instead of using Zimbabwe’s ailing national airline. The estimated cost of chartering one of Switzerland-based aviation company Comlux’s finest private jets for his flight to Beijing exceeded $2.3 million, which is a huge amount of money for an economy devastated by Robert Mugabe’s policies.
“The aircraft includes a private bedroom with en-suite bathroom, office, dining and living room, plus room for entourage and staff. It has cargo space for over 250 bags, and can even transport multiple cars,” Newsday reported on Tuesday.