Thursday, 4 April 2013

Zim-China Economic Relationship Needs Democratic Review

By Takura Zhangazha*

When the Chinese President visited Africa last week, the 28 March-4 April 2013 editorial comment of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent was correct to criticize our government’s ‘look east policy’.  Its main criticism was essentially to point out  that for all our government’s self praise for its ‘look east policy’ the fact that the Chinese leader did not visit the country can be described as  'a diplomatic snub'. And that after all is said and done it appears we are bit part players in luring long term and mutually beneficial economic foreign direct(FDI) investment from China. Particularly so where we now have the added dimension of the holding of the Brazil, India, China, Russia and South Africa  (BRICS )Fifth Summit  in Durban, South Africa at the end of March 2013.

While there will probably be counter arguments about whether President Jinping passing Zimbabwe by is a diplomatic snub or not, it is of importance that the nature of our relationship with China and Chinese foreign direct investment be reviewed democratically. This review would be in order to measure the national benefit to Zimbabwe and in relation to global trends in trade and development issues. 

The same said review would however need to move away from the dominant narratives of either viewing China’s role in Africa or Zimbabwe as the 'new imperialism' because either way, African  countries have interacted for hundreds of years with global superpowers of one form or the other. And this is not going to change in the near future. What will and must change is the nature of the national/domestic responses to these global hegemons and their financial/developmental aid and its attendant conditionalities or lack thereof. Moreover, it is also the dangerous nuances of xenophobia that have found dominance in nations such as Zambia that must be stemmed not in order to sweep anything under the carpet, but to deal with the causes and not the symptoms.

These are key departure points in analyzing Zimbabwe’s contemporary relationship with China. Whereas our narrative of our relationship with China was initially and historically a political one via the latter’s direct military and technical support for our liberation struggle, it is now largely an economic one. The little politics that remains today has come more from our own national leaders than the Chinese themselves. This is whether one looks at our economic ‘look east’ policy or our requests for vetos against sanctions resolutions at the United Nations Security Council.  In these requests the political leadership’s major challenge has been its inability to negotiate on firm ground and in the interests of the country.  

In saying this, I am aware that there will be consternation particularly over the sanctions issue but the counterargument would be, it never had to get that far in the first place. And in any event, the national political leadership need not refuse its complicity in the national crisis we faced then or we face now though to a less internationalized extent.

Given the fact that this year we will most certainly have a new government (of sorts) for the next five years it is important to outline a number of organic principles or rules of engagement for our foreign policy particularly where it concerns our relationship with China. And that these principles may at least be considered by those that will contest or support contestants in the pending 2013 elections. 

Broadly spoken for we must acknowledge and recognise that the historical and positive assistance given to Zimbabwe by China during the liberation struggle is beyond dispute, both here and in the SADC region. This however must not be reason for us to think or act out of economic context about the same said country's    'economic interests' driving motive (inclusive of their historical upper-hand over the West in the region)  in their contemporary relations with us. 

This does not make Chinese investment and aid packages any worse than that received from the traditional Western powers. It merely means any future government need not look at Chinese investment from a binary perspective of East/West, but fundamentally to seriously consider how such said investment best serves the social-democratic interests of the country. In doing so, it would be imperative that government stops the over-politicisation of what in the final analysis is now a relationship that is based largely on principles of economic cooperation in a highly competitive global economy. This, as opposed to the days of old where it was mainly about political and liberation struggle support only.  

As they have been doing in South Africa and Ethiopia, the Chinese are willing to negotiate with national leaders on the sort of assistance required. In the instance of South Africa the investment deals that  they recently signed are related not only to direct aid but joint infrastructure development projects for the benefit of that country’s majority and not the few. What is therefore important is how and what our leaders negotiate for in return for investment deals whether in relation to a 'state-capitalism' understanding of African markets or in dealing with minerals extraction ventures.

Unfortunately, our Zimbabwean leaders in the inclusive government have failed to understand this point and a new thinking is needed. It is most regrettable that none of the deals that we have entered into with either the Chinese, Indian or other governments have not been informed by a progressive and social democratic negotiation framework. And hence very few if any of the investment deals signed in the last four years of the inclusive government are anywhere near being described as being fully functional or running as scheduled.  

We may have a history of direct solidarity with the Peoples Republic of China dating back to our national liberation struggle era but even this important and historical solidarity alone is not enough in dealing with that country’s contemporary global interests. Neither is it enough in addressing our own socio-economic challenges here at home. We must negotiate much more firmly, based on sound mind and social democratic values and without getting angry on behalf of either East or West but on behalf of the interests of all Zimbabweans. 

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (