As the new republic limped towards its third decade, the dispirited nation, under the slackening grip of its ageing but iconic founding leader, was starting to question the revolution. Instead of delivering prosperity, the revolution had left the country unable to feed itself, wracked by widespread poverty, violence and chaos.
Mao’s China, in the 1970s, could be present-day Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
But it is a remarkably transformed China whose current paramount leader, President Xi Jinping, undertakes a state visit to Zimbabwe on December 1 and 2, 2015.
It is by all standards a significant event for Zimbabwe, which only a few years ago flirted with hermit status, to receive the leader of the second largest economy in the world. After all, only last year, Zimbabwe’s private press mocked the government when Chinese vice president Li Yuanchao met his Zimbabwean counterpart for less than an hour in a lounge at Harare’s international airport en-route to a four-day visit to Zambia.
Inevitably, given Zimbabwe’s parlous economic situation – a 45 percent decline in GDP between 1999 and 2008, a 90 percent jobless rate, chronic food insecurity, a yawning infrastructure deficit – Xi’s visit raises expectations of what China can, or should, do to help its stricken ally.
During President Robert Mugabe’s visit to China in August 2014, Harare and Beijing penned a series of deals, mostly in the energy, telecommunications and infrastructure sectors. Optimistically dubbed ‘mega deals’ by Zimbabwe’s government press desperate for a fillip, these deals pale into insignificance compared to what China has done, and continues to do, elsewhere on the African continent.
While Chinese trade with Africa has burgeoned over the past decade, reaching $300 billion (from $10 billion in 2000) to propel the Asian giant to become Africa’s largest trading partner, China’s investment on the continent remains low, accounting for up to 4 percent of investment into Africa.
China is Zimbabwe’s fourth largest trading partner, but now accounts for the biggest share of what little foreign investment the southern African country is drawing.
China has become Zimbabwe’s most visible economic partner, since the Mugabe government fell out with its traditional western donors in 2000 over the implementation of land reforms, allegations of poll rigging, political violence and other human rights abuses.
Beijing’s involvement with Zimbabwe elicits mixed feelings among citizens. Chinese involvement in the Marange diamond industry has been opaque, while the sprawling Chinese-built $100 million national defence college just outside Harare, funded through a diamond barter deal, sticks out like a sore thumb and has attracted a fair amount of criticism.
But there have been good things. Several deals agreed to during Mugabe’s visit last year are at various stages of actual implementation. These include the $355 million Kariba South power plant expansion which will add 300 megawatts to the strained national grid, the $144 million Harare water rehabilitation project, the $150 million Victoria Falls airport upgrade and the Huawei digitization project. State-owned telecommunications firms NetOne and TelOne are at various stages of drawing down on $218 million and $98 million Chinese loan facilities, respectively.
However, Chinese investment in Zimbabwe hasn’t reached the heights scaled in other African countries and there seems a discernible apprehension in Beijing about Zimbabwe’s medium-term future, given mounting tensions within Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and government over his succession.
After the initial clumsiness of Mao’s anointing of the short-lived Hua Guofeng, the Chinese Communist Party has managed to ensure seamless leadership transitions, from Deng Xiaoping to Jiang Zemin, succeeded by Hu Jintao, who paved way for the incumbent, Xi Jinping.
It remains to be seen if ZANU-PF has a succession plan and, in this regard, Zimbabwe’s ruling party fares poorly when compared to its peer political organizations – Tanzania’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi, Mozambique’s Frelimo and even Namibia’s SWAPO, which only came to power in 1990 but has since then delivered four different republican presidents.
Given this less-than-ideal scenario, what Zimbabwe needs most from China, more than alms, is the LESSON of China.
China’s remarkable economic progress – which has seen an astonishing 500 million of its 1.2 billion population lifted out of poverty – was not by accident.
When Deng assumed power in China in 1978, the vast country was some light years behind the industrialized world, and was struggling to feed itself.
The CCP had a decision to make – move with Deng and embrace market reforms, or stay the Maoist course despite its ruinous consequences.
‘We would rather eat socialist weeds than capitalist seedlings,’ was the rallying call among Maoist ideologues opposed to Deng’s reforms.
But Deng persisted, and prevailed.
Starting with the farming communes, which had been introduced in the 1958 after the amalgamation of farms but which reaped nothing more than whirlwind, Deng pushed reforms that reversed widespread low productivity and hunger by introducing the profit motive.
China could, once again, feed herself.
Similarly, Deng aggressively drove the modernization of China’s southern seaboard through the creation of special economic zones where investors – almost exclusively from the west – enjoyed competitive tax and other incentives.
As a result, these zones blew up into a series of what one western China watcher would describe as instant noodle megalopoli.
Herein lies the critical lesson Zimbabwe needs to learn from China, as she gets ready to roll out the red carpet for the emerging power’s paramount leader this week: strong leadership is being able to shirk the ideological straitjacket and drive real, epoch-making change.
Since 2000, Zimbabwe has pursued bold policy measures around the land and local participation in the economy, which have been undone by either not being thought through, well implemented or both.
One will struggle to find a sound argument against land reform or meaningful local participation in the economy. However, the ZANU-PF government’s hurried, ham-fisted, oft-violent, partisan and highly politicized approach to both has done more damage to these two policies than all its critics put together ever could.
While presuming to lead Africa’s re-awakening through these nationalistic policy thrusts, Zimbabwe has only succeeding in showing how not to pursue land reform and the general empowerment of the previously marginalised majority.
Xi’s visit should trigger greater introspection and embolden ponderous ZANU-PF to commit to genuine reforms, without which Zimbabwe’s per capita GDP will continue to lag behind the likes of Swaziland and South Sudan. Not the best platform from which to define Africa’s zeitgeist for the 21st century, as Zimbabwe often presumes to do on the continent.
A perfect place to start would be the pursuit of a more equitable, inclusive, de-racialised, de-politicised and economically sound land reform programme. Preceded, because lawmaking is relatively easier than auditing thousands of hectares, by the repeal of the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act-The Source