THE Chinese have in the last few years made their presence in Zimbabwe felt through several controversial projects.
Report by Phillip Chidavaenzi
The government has, however, insisted that the projects are part of a broader policy to strengthen ties with China, touted as the strongest emerging economy in the world.
But there is widespread suspicion that this is a spite strategy against Western countries miffed by Zimbabwe’s unflattering human rights record.
Current projects include a hotel and shopping mall in the wetland close to the National Sports Stadium (NSS), a hotel in Mutare, a hospital in Mahusekwa and state-of-the-art defence college in Harare.
The government is also accused of having taken over most of the lucrative diamond mines in the country through joint ventures, a move observers contend is no different from mortgaging the country to the Chinese.
Prior to these projects, the Chinese were accused of opting to do “small businesses” in foodstuffs, household goods and clothing which — apart from crowding struggling indigenous entrepreneurs out of business and crippling the clothing industry — did not add much value to the country’s economy.
According to a development consultant, Maxwell Saungweme, the Chinese forays into the construction industry were the clearest indications of their intentions to have a foothold on Zimbabwe in some new form of colonial hegemony.
“To demonstrate that they are here to stay, just as the British settlers did during colonialism, the Chinese are building Chinese hotels, supermarkets and temples all over. These sell Chinese foods and products, thereby reducing the benefit Zimbabwe should get from selling its products to tourists,” he said.
After getting a firm grip on the country’s retail, construction and mining sectors, the Chinese are also slowly clawing their way into the tourism industry. Apart from the two hotels already constructed in Harare and Mutare, there are three more luxury hotels set for Victoria Falls and Mutare.
Political analyst Alexander Rusero said although at face value capital projects run by the Chinese could be considered more beneficial to the nation than their retail enterprises, there was much bigger, but compromising politics at play.
“There is a problem in that most of these Chinese companies sub-contract other Chinese companies to do work that should be done by local companies. Most of the locals are employed to do menial jobs with poor remuneration and there is much disregard for labour laws,” he said.
Rusero said the government deliberately turned a blind eye to the abuses because China has brought them much business after most Western countries turned their backs on the Mugabe regime before the government of national unity came into place.
“Our government has behaved like a desperado, casting a blind eye on abuse of labour laws and ignoring labour unions which made noise about the abuses because there is a horse and rider relationship, with Zimbabwe being ridden by China,” he said.
He added that Zimbabwe owed China a lot since the latter, by virtue of their permanent seat on the UN Security Council, vetoed every attempt by Western countries to have the UN intervene in the country’s political turmoil.
This further explains why the government has not stopped the construction of the hotel and shopping mall at the wetland near the NSS.
China has become a major player in the country’s economy through their State-owned enterprises like Anjin Investments — involved in a controversial diamond mining venture with the military at Chiadzwa — and Sino-Zimbabwe Holdings. According to Global Witness’ recent report, Anjin has the most lucrative diamond concessions given in exchange for the $98 million for the construction of the army’s National Defence College.
Sino-Zimbabwe also has an interest in agriculture through Sino-Cotton and chrome mining along the Great Dyke belt. The Chinese also have many other investments in different sectors of the economy.
Political scientist Freedom Mazwi reckoned that although there was much Chinese activity in diamond extraction, Zimbabwe entered the deals while already handicapped and the accrual of benefits was still far off.
“It is now three years since China made some major investments in the country’s diamond sector in Marange. The government was forced to enter into a partnership largely because it did not have the required capital to engage in mineral extraction on a large-scale,” he said. “However, up to now Zimbabwe is yet to reap benefits from these investments in terms of infrastructural development and revenues to the national fiscus.”
He concurred with Rusero that “the Chinese really like cheap labour” saying their treatment of employees marked them as slave masters.
Another point of contention has been the exemption of Chinese mining companies from the community empowerment crusade ran by Indigenisation minister Saviour Kasukuwere. The companies have been accused of environmental degradation.
Chinese nationals in the country, who are believed to be very secretive, reportedly shunned the national census conducted in August last year, with one enumerator quoted saying many of them could not speak English.
An official in the Economic and Commercial Counsellor’s Office at the Chinese Embassy in Harare, Rosalind Xue, said they did not have the exact number of Chinese nationals in Zimbabwe, but they were in their thousands.
“We don’t have an exact figure of how many Chinese are living and working in Zimbabwe now because of the mobility. But I believe there are thousands of Chinese nationals here,” she said.
She, however, said there were 53 Chinese companies registered with the Chamber of Chinese Enterprises in Zimbabwe with more than 1 200 Chinese employees. Most of the companies, she said, were privately run.