Why is China so silent about Mugabe’s political future?


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Mugabe and Xi-Jinping

As Zimbabwe teeters on the brink of economic and political crisis, there’s one voice that has been conspicuously silent: China.

Despite the mutual professions of admiration and everlasting friendship, it seems that President Robert Mugabe has been abandoned by his Chinese counterpart in his hour of need.

It wasn’t meant to be this way.

At last year’s China-Africa forum in South Africa, Mugabe described Chinese President Xi Jinping in glowing terms: ‘Here is a man representing a country once called poor, a country which was never our coloniser. He is doing to us what we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do… We will say he is a God-sent person.’

Mugabe has good cause to be grateful to Xi, and to China, which has been a staunch ally over the years. Infamously, in 2004, ignoring the spate of political violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe at the time, China’s Deputy Commerce Minister Fu Ziying observed: ‘It’s apparent that his Excellency has been very good.’ This quote is rather typical of the kind of whole-hearted support that China has offered the Zimbabwean president over the years.

Not only has China turned a blind eye to Zimbabwe’s assorted governance issues, but it has also been an important economic partner. As well as being the biggest importer of tobacco, Zimbabwe’s largest cash crop, recently China forgave some US$40 million in debt. Even more significantly, last year the Asian superpower promised to plough some US$4 billion into the stagnant Zimbabwean economy through a series of ‘megadeals’ in energy and infrastructure.

But maybe these ties were never as impressive as they looked on paper. Take the debt forgiveness: while a nice gesture, it is meaningless in comparison to the US$1.8 billion that Zimbabwe owes the International Monetary Fund in arrears (against total international debts topping US$9 billion). And while those megadeals may sound impressive, they have so far failed to get off the ground, for the most part – even though Zimbabwe’s stuttering economy could use an injection of cash right about now.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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