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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Mugabe has gone, but China will remain the key player in Zimbabwe

Beijing has been a crucial player in the country after Zimbabwean president turned his back on the West

Zimbabwean soldiers walk through the Central Business District in the capital Harare on November 20, 2017 as a political crisis entered its second week with president Robert Mugabe resisting his party's call to step down. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP
Zimbabwean soldiers walk through the Central Business District in the capital Harare on November 20, 2017 as a political crisis entered its second week with president Robert Mugabe resisting his party's call to step down. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP

In the first flush of power, Robert Mugabe’s fledgling Zimbabwean state welcomed Beijing’s offer to replace a handsome old national library in a Harare suburb with a new national sports stadium.

More recently Beijing has funded construction of a national staff college for Zimbabwean army officers. Such gestures are not dissimilar to long-standing British influence-building strategies.

China has assiduously courted the post-colonial government of Zimbabwe to eclipse the colonial power Britain. The downfall of Robert Mugabe could fairly be seen as the manifestation of Chinese influence in Africa.

The push to remove Mr Mugabe appeared to capture British officials on the hop. Catriona Liang, the ambassador in Harare, was away on personal leave. It was left to a junior embassy official to post precautionary social media videos.

William Hague, the former British Foreign Secretary, admitted the extent of Chinese influence in Africa. Writing in a British newspaper ahead of Mr Mugabe's fall, he said: "Significantly, before the military chiefs ordered the tanks to roll last week, it was from Beijing that they apparently sought a green light, rather than London or Washington.

"If so, the Chinese leadership gave the right answer, but it is a sign that external power over African affairs is steadily moving in their direction and away from the West.".

Far from staying at home, many of the 20,000 Britons resident in Zimbabwe were very aware of the mood of the street. They supported the army’s intervention against Mr Mugabe. In pictures on Facebook and Twitter they posted images from parks and avenues where they stood among the crowds calling for a “new era”.

Draped in the Zimbabwean national flag, the British residents held posters, sang protest songs and conducted prayer sessions.

Zimbabwe's shift to the East took place in the 1990s after Mr Mugabe’s land seizures targeted a predominantly British community of large-scale farmers. That set him on a collision course with Tony Blair’s government and led to dozens of deaths. The EU imposed the first retaliatory sanctions on Zimbabwe in 2002. Mr Mugabe and his high-spending wife, Grace, were banned from travel to Europe.

Mr Mugabe described his drive for Asian friends as a new beginning. He warned during a speech at the stadium that Harare would henceforth follow a "Look East" policy. “We have turned east, where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets,” he said.

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Read more:

Mugabe is finished but the wounds remain

Zimbabwe's ruling party prepares to impeach Mugabe

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Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, visited Zimbabwe in 2015 to lavish praise on Beijing’s ally. He dubbed Zimbabwe an “all-weather friend” of China.

Alex Vines, a Chatham House expert on Africa, said it was no coincidence that the Zimbabwean military chief General Constantino Chiwenga had visited Beijing only days before the military moved out of the barracks against Mr Mugabe. Political support from China is a crucial consideration for Harare’s Zanu-PF power brokers.

“In the outer suburbs of Harare, two of the biggest embassies in Zimbabwe are the British and the Chinese,” Mr Vines said. “As other embassies scaled down or closed, Beijing’s expanded. Whereas British diplomats were well connected with business, civil society and opposition figures, the Chinese invested in 'technical support' of the party of government Zanu-PF, including state security and the presidency.

“When it came to Zanu-PF politics and factionalism, Chinese diplomats were well connected and insightful and, like their western colleagues, concerned about stability, a better investment climate and adherence to the rule of law.”

Mr Vines thinks British and Chinese officials should now align to push for market-friendly reforms that revive the Zimbabwean economy. “Beijing's interest is in a better investment climate in Zimbabwe. A clear transitional arrangement resulting in elections for a legitimate government in Harare is as much in Beijing's interest as London’s,” he said. “The 'Look East' and the 'Re-engagement with the West' strategies have not brought about the confidence and investment that Zimbabwe needs. What Zimbabwe requires is stable and accountable government.”

On the surface Zimbabwe has been a poor bet for China, with national output less than half its peak in 2000. Yet Beijing’s investments have continued to pour in, reaching US$450 million (Dh1.65 billion) in 2015.

"Chinese investment in Zimbabwe has also fallen victim to Mugabe's policy and some projects were forced to close down or move to other countries in recent years, bringing huge losses," said Wang Hongyi, a commentator in the Chinese nationalist newspaper, Global Times. "Bilateral co-operation did not realise its potential under Mugabe's rule."

The same newspaper predicted that despite the turmoil in removing Mr Mugabe, Beijing would remain a player under his successor.

“China has played a positive and constructive role in Africa. The long-term friendship between China and Zimbabwe will transcend the internal disturbances in Zimbabwe," an editorial said. "The Chinese public would like to see peace in that distant but friendly country."