Mugabe’s exit will make Zimbabwe even closer to China, say Chinese analysts

Man poised to take over as head of state has previous ties to Beijing and the need to open up the economy will create further opportunities for cooperation, say observers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 4:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 November, 2017, 5:46pm

Robert Mugabe’s resignation in Zimbabwe after 37 years in power is likely to bring the African nation even closer to China, according to Chinese analysts.

Former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa is poised to take over as head of state after a military takeover finally forced Mugabe to quit.

China is already Zimbabwe’s fourth largest trading partner and its largest source of overseas investment, but these ties are likely to deepen under the new leadership if it attempts to open up the nation’s stricken economy, analysts said.

Mnangagwa also has ties with Beijing as he received military training in China during Zimbabwe’s fight for independence from colonial and white-majority rule.

Zimbabweans sang and danced in the streets after 93-year old Robert Mugabe announced his resignation on Tuesday.

The military takeover was sparked by the removal of Mnangagwa and fears within factions of the governing ZANU-PF party – particularly in the army – that Mugabe was attempting to make his wife Grace his successor.

Zimbabwe rejoices as Robert Mugabe finally quits as president, ending 37 years of iron rule

The former vice-president received his military training in China in the 1960s and also attended the Beijing School of Ideology, run by the Chinese Communist Party.

Wang Hongyi, an expert at the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Mnangagwa had a similar background to Mugabe in that he rose to power after fighting in the country’s struggle for independence.

Mnangagwa, however, appears less of a hardline nationalist in terms of his economic policies, according to Wang.

How Mugabe transformed from liberator to despot, leaving legacy of economic ruin in Zimbabwe

“Mnangagwa appears to be a more open-minded leader after he spoke openly against Mugabe’s nationalistic policies that have deterred foreign investment,” Wang said.

One example was his opposition to policies two years ago to make foreign firms sell stakes in their Zimbabwe ventures to local firms, said Wang.

Mnangagwa also told the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV two years ago that Zimbabwe was working on a massive economic reform programme and was looking to “create an investment environment which will attract the flow of capital”.

Western powers have imposed sanctions on Mugabe’s government over allegations of vote rigging and human rights abuses. Lenders such as the International Monetary Fund have also frozen financial aid since Zimbabwe defaulted on debts in 1999. Zimbabwe’s ostracism by the West has encouraged Mugabe’s government to foster closer ties with China.

How Chinese living in Zimbabwe reacted to Mugabe’s downfall

Wang at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said Sino-Zimbabwe relations would only benefit if Mnangagwa opens up the economy, now suffering from massive unemployment, but he cautioned that the new president would still rule with an “iron fist”, with ZANU-PF still in control in Zimbabwe.

“He is surely a hardliner or else the coup would not have happened and he would not have the military’s support,” said Wang.

Mnangagwa was national security minister in the 1980s during a brutal crackdown against supporters of the rival ZAPU party, with thousands killed.

Five ways China is building influence in Zimbabwe

Shen Xiaolei, another foreign affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Mnangagwa’s China-friendly attitude would gain him support from local Chinese businessmen in Zimbabwe.

“He is known to be very willing to join activities organised by Chinese groups across Zimbabwe,” Shen said. “If he has learned his lesson from his predecessor, he will be willing to run the country with a more open mind and have friendlier policies for foreign investment.”

There are more than 10,000 Chinese people living in Zimbabwe, according to the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe, running businesses ranging from restaurants to manufacturing.

Chinese investment in Zimbabwe includes extensive spending in the nation’s energy sector.

State-owned Power Construction Corporation of China signed a US$1.2 billion deal to expand a Zimbabwean power station two years ago.