Zim-China relations: Web of lies, propaganda, capture

As Zimbabwe ticks towards its next election in 2023, you notice this renewed energy in the public media to defend Chinese interests on one hand, and an equal amount of anger in vilifying imagined enemies of Beijing.

Corruption watch: WITH TAWANDA MAJONI As Zimbabwe ticks towards its next election in 2023, you notice this renewed energy in the public media to defend Chinese interests on one hand, and an equal amount of anger in vilifying imagined enemies of Beijing.

This negative energy is so evident in the mainstream official media, but it is also playing out quite actively on social media. Invariably, in the quest to cast Chinese investments and other interests as the work of knights in shining armour, reporting around Chinese commitments in Zimbabwe has been, and continues to be framed within an intricate — albeit clumsy — propaganda web by the public media.

Not all propaganda is negative, granted, but here in Zimbabwe, it’s coming out as a bloated matrix of lies, disinformation, hate and half- or post-truths.

Where the public media is concerned, it’s been pretty like that since the arrival of the Pioneer Column some century and three decades ago. And that is to serve the interests of a clique of powerful people within the ruling elite. This clique sets, defends and sustains its self-serving agenda using the public media, among other sorts of vile strategies.

I have already talked of how the official media stretched out a recent well-meaning training workshop by Information for Development Trust (IDT) and, using brazen falsehoods, derogatory language and chicanery, turned it into a theatre of war between two traditional rivals — China and the United States of America.

Unbelievably, the media reports that followed traded IDT off as a proxy of the USA that was working with independent journalists and the political opposition to muck Chinese investments. None of that bull is true, of course!

In what is certainly a paranoid but systematic strategy, once the official media ran its naughty falsehoods, the Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe, Guo Shaochun, reproduced the lie when China handed over half a million vaccines to Zimbabwe last Sunday.

He said “some elements” were out to smear Chinese investments, as was reported in the public media just before that. The Chinese embassy in Harare had also tweeted something similar.

At the same occasion, VP Chiwenga talked of “uninvited” actors who were out to undermine Chinese interests. Then the usual Twitter culprits and their cohorts of online trolls took up the same propaganda like they were on steroids. Again, the anger is also visible in the way they are trying to link the opposition, particularly MDC-A, to the “smear campaign”.

Can you connect the dots here? You have the official media that is being used to pander falsehoods in defence of Chinese interests. Then you have the Chinese themselves as represented by Ambassador Shaochun. Then you have the Zimbabwean ruling elite seen through the VP. I’m not sure, but I think President Mnangagwa must also have thrown in a similar remark too.

So, here is the thing. The official media are the pawns meant to frame China as an all-weather, readily available and dependable friend of Zimbabwe. The Chinese are pretty happy to have things that way because their investments in Zimbabwe must be seen as the go-to, fair and beneficial thing. And then, the ruling elite is there to prop up this narrative. More about this shortly.

Let’s knock the nail straight on the head right from here. Chinese investments in Zimbabwe, just like everywhere else in Africa, are never about Zimbabweans. It’s never the Chinese intention or motive to advance the interests of Zimbabweans. It’s about China, period.

So, don’t get fooled when you hear them say we are good friends because we have donated so many vaccines, refurbished an airport or constructed a power station. Yes, who will quarrel with the fact that the vaccine donations are benefiting Zimbabweans? But there is never free lunch under this scorching sun.

Ask yourself. Why is Zimbabwe getting more free vaccines than most of the African countries? Some time back, the independent media — The Standard to be precise — carried an investigative story that showed that China was using free vaccines to trap Zimbabwe into buying millions of other doses from the Asian country.

China needs sustainable markets in Zimbabwe and Africa alike. The last time I checked, China had a population of 1.411 billion people. This is according to the results of China’s seventh national population census for 2020. That means that, currently China has over a billion people more than the USA, which has under 400 million people. Projections say that, by 2026, the Chinese population would have reached 1.419 billion. It’s fast losing fashion for the Chinese to stay in China, so to speak. Rather, they must go out.

India, with some 1.3 billion people, is breathing hard on China and could actually overtake the latter in the next few years. Interestingly, though, India is not doing what China is doing by establishing a huge economic-political presence outside its own borders, but that’s a conversation for another day.

Back to the issue of markets. With such a huge population, China needs places where it can sell its own products. Zimbabwe is no exception in that regard. It never matters what is going to be sold or to who, by who, Chinese products must just be sold elsewhere to sustain industries back in the Asian country.

Do you then wonder why China has robust embassies in 89% of Africa and is seeking to reach 100%? That’s because embassies play a critical role in advancing the economic interests of a country, China most urgently.

China, whose arable space is only 10% of the country’s total land cover, needs sustainable places to grow crops as a way of absorbing and satiating its restless population. Zimbabwe, like most African countries, has lots of arable land.

China needs the copper — being a consumer of 40% of the world’s copper — coal, timber, and a whole host of other natural resources. If it doesn’t get those from outside itself, there will be a big implosion in that country and China will collapse.

China has also grown a pretty robust middle class, particularly based on its economic exploits in Africa. This middle class must be maintained and sustained, and the best way to do that is to go out and make more exploits in Africa and so on.

Let’s then focus on the intricate link between China and the Zimbabwean ruling elite. In order for the Chinese forays to succeed, Beijing must build strong and unbreakable synergies or symbioses with the local ruling elite, together with the downstream public bureaucracy, which is, like the media, a mere cog in a big machine that is too happy to get small drops of the oil here and there.

Beijing must pamper a small but powerful clique within the ruling elite. This is the clique that makes all the decisions that matter. You have definitely heard of how the Chinese never stand in a queue to have business licences. You have also heard how authorities get bribes from Chinese investors and other players. You have heard about how this small clique from the elite is growing fat back accounts on the basis of its unwritten shareholding in Chinese investments.

This partly explains why many Chinese investors — who come on the tether of Beijing — are going scot free in their abuse of the environment, shoddy tenders, land grabs labour abuses, among other excesses. Such impunity is only possible when you have the blessings of the elite and its downstream proxies.

Do you ever wonder why China would rather build — freely — Zimbabwe’s new mega-million parliament or defence college instead of empowering villagers to do income generating projects on the same money? The reason is, by donating such physical structures, the Chinese are merely wanting to massage the elite for their own benefit. A form of capture, actually.

But then, this ruling elite is also politically important. Zimbabwe has virtually been reduced to a Chinese political outpost. You know every well that, taking the whole of Africa into consideration, Zimbabwe is the most loudly quarrelsome dispensation when it comes to foreign relations with the USA in particular.  This is quite handy for Beijing, which has its own fair share of quarrels with the Americans. And that also explains why Zimbabwe is receiving perhaps the biggest amount of free Covid-19 doses from China when you compare it with other African countries.

So, you see history replaying itself in this regard. China supported Zimbabwean freedom fighters,. Not because we share the same ancestry or something like that, but because Zimbabwe, again like other African liberation movements, was strategic in advancing communist interests against the capitalist imperialism of European colonisers.

Zimbabwe’s ruling elite, therefore, is willingly captured by the Chinese. But, as already seen, this is pleasant capture because the elite is benefiting a lot from its nocturnal relationship with Beijing. And in order to preserve this happy capture, the elite is using the public media to do its own wars.

And there is this heavy load of hypocrisy in how the pro-China narrative plays out in the public media. If, for instance, journalists’ are supported by a western player, that becomes part of the regime change agenda.

Where China supports the same journalists, there is nothing wrong with it. How many local public and independent media journalists have been sponsored to go to China with the hope of turning them propaganda machines? And why is it that China is sponsoring pro-China awards in Zimbabwe and the public media is not complaining about it?

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT) and can be contacted on [email protected]

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