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Chinese President Xi Jinping walks hand in hand with then-leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, in Harare in 2015. Photo: AFP

China mourns Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe after years of unwavering support

  • Despite international pressure to stop working with his administration over its human rights record, Beijing’s influence in the African nation only grew
  • Chinese foreign ministry describes him as an ‘outstanding leader of the national liberation movement and statesman’
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former strongman who has died at the age of 95, might not receive glowing tributes from the West. But with condolences from China and other African leaders, he may rest in peace.

His successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, confirmed Mugabe’s death in a Singapore hospital on Friday.

For close to half a century, China and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe enjoyed an unmatched camaraderie, until maintaining those ties became almost untenable for Beijing.

China described Mugabe as an “outstanding leader of the national liberation movement and statesman” who firmly defended the country’s sovereignty, as African leaders termed him a “liberator” and “pan-Africanist”, while some media called him a “tyrant”.

In his condolence message, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China had “lost an old friend and a good friend” and wanted to foster cooperation with Zimbabwe, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Mugabe’s death was deeply mourned in China, noting that the former president opposed foreign interference and actively promoted Beijing’s relations with Zimbabwe and Africa.

“We’d like to express deep condolences over Mugabe’s passing, and convey sincere sympathy to Zimbabwe’s government, its people, as well as his family members,” Geng said.

People gather around a portrait of Robert Mugabe in Harare on Friday. Photo: AP

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, meanwhile, said that under Mugabe’s leadership, “Zimbabwe’s sustained and valiant struggle against colonialism inspired our own struggle against apartheid and built in us the hope that one day South Africa too would be free”.

“During the decades of our own struggle, Zimbabwe’s liberation movement supported our own liberation movement to fight oppression on multiple fronts. After Zimbabwe achieved independence, the apartheid state brutalised and violated Zimbabwe as punishment for supporting our own struggle,” Ramaphosa said.

“Many Zimbabweans paid with their lives so that we could be free. We will never forget or dishonour this sacrifice and solidarity.”

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta described Mugabe as “an elder statesman, a freedom fighter and a pan-Africanist who played a major role in shaping the interests of the continent”.

And Tanzanian President John Magufuli said the continent had lost one of its bravest pan-Africanist leaders, who led by example in opposing colonialism.

The Singapore connections of late Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe

Mugabe was president of Zimbabwe from 1980, when the country gained its independence from white-minority rule, until 2017, when he was ousted in a military coup and replaced by his deputy.

Without offering evidence, conspiracy theorists have linked Mugabe’s non-violent exit to his close friendship with Beijing – claiming it orchestrated the coup while ensuring the nonagenarian was handled with kid gloves. Beijing has vehemently denied the claim, saying it does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.

Over Mugabe’s 37-year rule, the early promise of his leadership was eroded by economic turmoil, disputed elections and human rights violations.

When his rule turned dictatorial – characterised by allegations of vote-rigging and human rights abuses and the decision to forcefully take away land belonging to white settlers – the international community led by Europe and the United States abandoned him.

The economy was thrown into a tailspin, with inflation surging to 500 billion per cent in 2008 – the second-highest in recorded history after Hungary in 1956. At the time, traditional aid donors and trading partners from the West shunned the country. And as the West withdrew its commercial and political support, Zimbabwe, like other countries in Africa, warmed to China as a possible way out of the crisis.

China was among the few countries that never severed ties with Harare.

Eric Olander, Asia-based managing editor of the China Africa Project, said Mugabe and Beijing go back to the days of anti-imperialism and colonial liberation wars.

“Chinese support for Mugabe never wavered over the years despite considerable international pressure,” Olander said. “Towards the end of Mugabe’s reign, a lot of people thought Chinese influence in Zimbabwe would fall with his passing, but it didn’t. Instead, Beijing spent years quietly building relationships with other power centres within Zanu-PF, most notably with the now ailing [Vice-President] General Constantino Chiwenga.”

Mugabe was generous in his praise for China and its leader, Xi.

In 2015, speaking at Beijing’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, he said of Xi: “Here is a man representing a country once called poor; a country which never was our coloniser, but there you are. He is doing to us what we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do. If they have ears to hear, let them hear.”

China ignored calls from the West for it to stop working with Mugabe’s administration, to put more pressure on the Zimbabwean government over its human rights record. Instead, Beijing offered both political and economic support in the form of aid and loans, as well as diplomatic support at the United Nations Security Council. China bought the country’s gold, platinum and diamonds, and wrote off millions of dollars in debts as Zimbabwe struggled to repay its loans.

Chinese influence spread in the country from 2003 to 2013 – when Zimbabwe was shunned by Western nations – in areas ranging from mining, construction and agriculture to telecoms, retail and hospitality, according to a 2014 report by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).

Bilateral trade between the two countries jumped 20 per cent to US$533 million in the first five months of 2012, according to the South African think tank.

Robert Mugabe attends a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing with former Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2005. Photo: AFP

But the support from China goes much further back. Forty years ago, when Mugabe was engaged in an armed struggle with the white-minority government of Ian Smith, Beijing provided assistance, sending military hardware to guerillas in the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla), the military wing of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. Beijing also provided military training, with some Zanla guerillas being trained in China, which helped them to advance the insurgency. According to the SAIIA report, China also provided financial assistance to the cause of Zimbabwean liberation, via Zanu-PF.

“In short, of all the countries that Zimbabwe genuinely respected and wanted to establish links with at the time of independence, none could compare to China,” the report said.

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And China has been keen to establish links with Zimbabwe – particularly in the mining industry, starting with iron, steel, chrome and platinum, and later diamonds. Chinese firms are also behind big infrastructure projects in the country, while Chinese nationals run internet cafes, barbershops and hairdressing salons, grocery stores, electrical and home appliance shops, entertainment venues and fast food outlets.

Bilateral trade with Beijing stood at US$1.34 billion last year, with China importing US$889.62 million worth of goods from Zimbabwe, mostly minerals such as diamonds and gold, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Chinese President Xi last year also promised to write off the country’s debts to Beijing that accrued under Mugabe’s rule. Beijing extended US$2.2 billion of loans to Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2017, according to the research initiative.

But Zimbabwe is still not out of the woods. Its external debts amount to more than US$9 billion – about half of the country’s gross domestic product – and the new administration under President Mnangagwa is seeking more than US$15 billion to revive the economy.

Olander said Beijing’s next move would be closely watched.

“Now, as Zimbabwe, fully free of Mugabe, descends further into the economic abyss, a key question is whether Xi Jinping will step in to help Mnangagwa out of this mess or is Beijing once again quietly preparing for another power transition in Harare?” he said.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Liberator or tyrant, Mugabe never lost support of Beijing