By Takura Zhangazha*
The immediate effect of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recently ended state visit to Zimbabwe has been to bring in that country in from the international cold. It had been a while since a leader of a global superpower had visited the country. Against the backdrop of United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya the Zimbabwe government was no doubt going to milk this visit for what its worth. And the overall message that it intended to give to the country’s citizens is that its ‘look east’ policy works. And what more evidence than the fact of a full state visit by the leader of the worlds second largest economy.
The state visit turned out to be exactly about economics and trade much to the delight of a desperate for financial aid host government. There was to be no mention of human rights, good governance from President Xi. Instead the major highlights were predictably the signing of bilateral investment agreements on energy, telecommunications and a significant one on ending double taxation of Chinese investment companies.
The details of the deals are not quite in the public domain. Suffice to say, they are about business more than they are about direct political solidarity. While the Zimbabwean government may emphasize that it is because of historical ties that Beijing has a soft spot for it, I am certain the Chinese are reflecting more on the opportunities and profit that they will gain from the bilateral agreements. Not just in monetary terms but also with a keen eye on geopolitical interests given the centrality of Zimbabwe in Southern Africa. Or alternatively, the gateway that Zimbabwe appears to be in doing business with the rest of the region.
So after the fanfare, the intentions of both governments may not be in complete tandem.
Zimbabwe as the recipient of the loan facilities and investment obviously had to concede a number of issues that normally its radical nationalism would not allow. A quick example being the rather odd one of cancelling double taxation for Chinese investors. This is not in keeping with its indigenization policy where even the 49% permitted for foreign investors has not been exempt from the taxman. In all likelihood, even the 51% compulsory state acquisition of foreign companies will not apply completely to those owned and operated by the Chinese.
The risk that the government of Zimbabwe has taken is that its major economic policies will no longer be as contextual as it or its citizens would prefer. It will have to pursue economic policies that are in general keeping with the Chinese state capitalism model. Even if the Chinese have got a policy of non-interference in the political realm of countries that they seek and establish trade agreements with, this state capitalism eventually comes with the necessity of a repressive state that prioritizes benevolence than it does human rights.
The Zimbabwean state is however neither benevolent nor a keen advocate of broad human rights in the liberal sense but the state capitalist model suits its new found intention to create an environment characterized by what it calls the ‘ease of doing business’.
This development, though not particularly new to Zimbabweans after experiencing years of IMF and World Bank sponsored structural adjustment, is unique in that it is now shared by our Chinese counterparts. Both as an economic development template, but also as a long term strategy to retain political power.
So after President Xi’s visit, the Zimbabwean state is likely to step up its withdrawal of social service provision and favour the path of privatization or its euphemistic version of public-private partnerships (PPPs). It will do so in a fashion similar to its current largest benefactor through ensuring opposition to its policies and rule are kept in check and businesses tow the state and party line.
It will however face key challenges in its new found endeavour to somewhat mimic Chinese development models. These will be issues to with the problem of corruption and elite accumulation as well as ensuring\ that its leadership succession for a post Mugabe era runs smoothly. Furthermore, it may face the challenge of political dissent from a revived civil society or opposition which may call for resistance to these China inspired economic measures.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com