China’s growing investment and development in Sub-Saharan Africa, dubbed “The Next Empire” by The Atlantic‘s Howard French for its historic potential to reshape the continent and grow Chinese influence, is looking especially imperial these days in Zimbabwe. The impoverished pariah state, isolated by President Robert Mugabe’s violent suppression of dissent, has put more and more of its economy and natural resources under Chinese control. The Asian giant, in return for its investments — both in Zimbabwean infrastructure and in Mugabe’s personal accounts — has won near-exclusive dominance of everything from mineral rights to labor standards, as well as the apparent acquiescence of local politicians and police. Zimbabwe is far from a Chinese colony. The country is politically and militarily sovereign, but as China’s economic hold tightens, the African nation’s independence is becoming harder to distinguish.
So far, the Zimbabweans who are most feeling China’s influence in their country are the workers. As Chinese firms take over business and Chinese managers come to run everything from billion-dollar mining companies to the downtown restaurants in capital Harare, Zimbabwean workers and labor unions are complaining of mistreatment and exploitation. Earlier this month, construction workers went on strike over low pay — $4 per day — and what they said were regular beatings by their managers Chinese managers with the Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company. The case is just one of many that has labor groups — one of the few segments of Zimbabwean politics that enjoys latitude from the ruling party — up in arms.
Reports of beatings by Chinese managers are so common that even a cook at Harare’s popular China Garden restaurant complained of them, telling the Zimbabwe Mail & Guardian, “Working for these men from the East is hell on earth.”
“Workers continue to endure various forms of physical torture at the hands of these Chinese employers right under the noses of the authorities,” a spokesperson for the the Zimbabwe Construction and Allied Trade Workers’ Union told the same newspaper. “One of the most disturbing developments is that most of the Chinese employers openly boast that they have government protection and so nothing can be done to them. This clearly indicates that the issue has more serious political connotations than we can imagine.”
The labor spokesperson’s fears of political capture are probably not misplaced. China has adeptly co-opted much of the country’s political leadership, buying impunity for Chinese managers as well as control over much of Zimbabwe’s economy. China recently paid $3 billion for exclusive access to Zimbabwe’s extensive platinum rights, a contract estimated to be worth $40 billion. It might seem surprising that Mugabe would take such a lopsided deal, but platinum is both expensive and time-consuming to extract. His country has a national debt of $7.1 billion, which is larger than the national GDP, and with his regime so isolated from the international community, few other sources of investment.
But don’t feel too sorry for Mugabe — Zimbabwe-watchers suspect that the autocratic president benefits personally from these kinds of deals from China. It’s not hard to find the payoff — he keeps a large (and heavily guarded) mansion in Hong Kong, where he is often seen on shopping sprees under the guard of Chinese special police. Mugabe also depends on his Hong Kong home for another reason: because the sanctioned leader cannot legally travel to Europe, he will need a place of safe refuge if he is ever ousted from power. The 87-year-old ruler even relies on Chinese medical treatment. Like the French-imposed monarchs of 19th century North Africa, or the Soviet-sponsored premiers of Cold War-era Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Mugabe is coming to depend on his Chinese sponsor for his personal economic and physical well-being.
China’s grasp on Zimbabwe extends beyond even the African country’s economy and political system. A massive military compound is under construction in Harare, built by Chinese firms and with a Chinese loan of $98 million. The open-ended loan, which the already indebted Zimbabwean government has no obvious way of paying back, means that this component of the country’s military will be effectively Chinese-owned. Because Mugabe relies on the military not just for defending the borders but for maintaining the oppression that keeps him in power, the expensive facility will hand a small but important part of Zimbabwean sovereignty over to Chinese lenders.
This isn’t the first time that Zimbabwe has relied on China for its security needs. During the 2008 political crisis, when Mugabe deployed violence to retain control of the country after declaring victory in a heavily disputed election, South African dock workers discovered that China was shipping in weapons for Mugabe’s army. There’s no telling what Mugabe promised in exchange for the guns he needed to maintain control, but the effect has been to deepen China’s influence over what happens, and who rules, in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe’s combination of debt, political reliance, and now military reliance — not to mention the increasing number of local and national businesses under Chinese supervision — has blurred the line between Chinese investment in Zimbabwe and Chinese control over Zimbabwe. And though this case of Chinese encroachment in Africa may be an extreme example — due in large part to the political and economic vacuum that Western sanctions have left in Zimbabwe — it is far from the only one. China recently signed a deal with Mauritania, for example, for 25 years of control of the country’s economically important fishing resources. In 2006, China paid Mozambique $2 billion for a deal to dam off the Zambezi river and send 3,000 settlers to populate the valley, some of the country’s most fertile land. China is snatching up agricultural land across the continent, often with leases nearing a century in length.
For now, in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, China appears to be using its newfound leverage mostly for economic gain. But it’s not hard to foresee a day when it could exert its enormous influence over African domestic politics or even foreign policy. To what end China would turn its African beneficiaries into African proxies, and what that would mean for the billions of people led by African governments increasingly reliant on Chinese sponsorship, only time will tell.