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China hopes for stable partner in Zimbabwe after Mugabe

Outlook unclear after protests against Chinese influence

JOHANNESBURG -- On Saturday, tens of thousands of people gathered on the streets of Zimbabwean capital Harare to demand the ouster of their long-ruling President Robert Mugabe. But the 93-year-old leader was not the only target of Zimbabweans' ire that day. The protesters also lashed out at the country that has been Mugabe's ally for decades: China.

"Mugabe sold us out to the Chinese, and we are going to remove him!" crowds chanted as they made their way down Robert Mugabe Avenue, according to local media reports.

Mugabe finally relented to pressure from his own party, the military and the public and resigned on Nov. 21. When Zimbabwe's military seized power on Nov. 14, the instigators insisted they had not acted to push Mugabe out, but to purge the ruling ZANU-PF party of "criminals" around the elderly president. The shock move came after Mugabe sacked powerful Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ostensibly to pave the way for his wife Grace Mugabe to step in and eventually take over for her husband.  

Beijing will be watching what happens next closely. Mnangagwa has returned as head of ZANU-PF and is expected to take over as president. Anti-Chinese sentiment has been building in Zimbabwe as frustrated citizens see the Asian state backing a government that has left most of the country unemployed and in poverty.

ZANU-PF has had close ties with China for decades, dating back to the liberation struggle against the former British colony's white-minority rule. Mugabe's guerrilla fighters received backing from Beijing and Mnangagwa, also a fighter in the war, received military training in China.

In more recent years, as Western governments have shunned Mugabe's increasingly authoritarian rule, China has become a lifeline for the southern African nation's teetering economy, financing the military and injecting much-needed capital into the construction, mining, energy and agricultural sectors. The trade volume between the two countries exceeds $1 billion, and in 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised his counterpart another $4 billion in aid and investment.

"Political leaders have drawn extensive support from the provision of (Chinese) military equipment, weapons and intelligence to prop up the Mugabe regime," said Charles Laurie, head of country risk for Verisk Maplecroft. "Individuals on the street are well aware of this -- and have been on the receiving end."

For China, Zimbabwe is not the most strategically important country in Africa, but maintaining ties with Harare is part of Beijing's broader interests in the region. China is Africa's largest trading partner, with its thirst for resources driving high growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa and sending more than a million Chinese nationals to the continent. The subsequent slowdown in China's resource-intensive growth hit African economies hard, prompting many to question whether China could sustain a positive economic influence on the continent.

As Chinese exports to Africa have risen, Beijing's interests in Africa have shifted to the region as being a market in its own right, while its governments remain key to China's efforts to position itself as the new leader of the global south. China has focused on cooperating with countries that, like Zimbabwe, "have suffered under colonialism and have a difficult relationship with the West," said Cobus van Staden, senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. "Maintaining these relationships is a key part of China's forward momentum and its plan to re-center the global political order."

Mugabe played into those ambitions with his "Look East" policy, crafted after Western sanctions were imposed on the country at the turn of the millennium. But China has had growing concerns about Zimbabwe's economic stability. Though its stance of non-intervention may have kept it from meddling in Zimbabwe's politics, Beijing has shown signs of impatience with Mugabe's mishandling of the economy and the negative impact on Chinese interests in the country.

"China wants a stable Zimbabwe and a predictable government and rule of law, so they know their investments are safe," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House.

Whether China gave a thumbs-up to the military's plans to seize power last week has fueled much speculation. Days before, head of Zimbabwe Defence Forces General Constantino Chiwenga jetted to Beijing to meet with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and Central Military Commission member Gen. Li Zuocheng. Though the Chinese government called the visit a "normal military exchange," its timing raised the possibility that Chiwenga had wanted China's blessing before going ahead with his plan.  

On the fence

The Chinese government rubbished the notion in a statement issued by its embassy in South Africa. "It is beyond obvious that the purpose of certain elements trying to link the Zimbabwe political crisis is to undermine China's image and to drive a wedge between China and Africa," the statement read.Observers agree that China will do business with whoever is in power in Zimbabwe. So far Beijing has not taken sides, only urging Zimbabweans to find a peaceful resolution to the impasse. But some reports suggest the Chinese government quietly favors Mnangagwa and his investor-friendly reputation, even if it means greater competition for China if Western players get back into the country under a new government.

China wants a stable Zimbabwe and a predictable government and rule of law, so they know their investments are safe

Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House

A Zimbabwean economy that is back on track could help quash the deepening resentment against Chinese businesses in the country. Though China enjoys widespread support on most of the continent, a recent survey by Afrobarometer found Zimbabweans felt more negatively about Chinese influence than most other African countries. "There is a strong view that Chinese involvement has smothered Zimbabwean businesses," said Laurie of Verisk Maplecroft.

Last weekend's demonstrations were a jubilant and peaceful affair, but if the current impasse drags on and frustration mounts against Mugabe, Chinese businesses could start feeling the heat. A quick, smooth transition to a post-Mugabe era is the most likely scenario at this point, says Vines of Chatham House. "Everybody will be wanting to see a successful Zimbabwe and make financial returns," he said. "Zimbabweans themselves want that."

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