As Xi Jinping visited Zimbabwe during a tour of Africa in 2015, Robert Mugabe offered the Chinese president a warm welcome and portrayed the two nations as deep allies. “China is Zimbabwe’s all-weather friend,” the Zimbabwean president told reporters.
Now, a little less than two years after that visit, the 93-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly 40 years, is under house arrest in the capital as his own military patrols the streets and rumors circulate that Beijing may have given coup plotters its blessing.
Less than two weeks before political turmoil hit Harare, Zimbabwean army chief Constantino Chiwenga visited Beijing for a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan. China's Foreign Ministry has said the Nov. 5 meeting was a “normal military exchange as agreed by the two countries,” but there is speculation that Chiwenga, now a leading figure in the suspected coup, was seeking China's support for a move against Mugabe.
Some observers say it is unlikely that Beijing would directly support regime change in a foreign nation. Todd Moss, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and former deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said he could not think of an incident where China had encouraged a change in government in Africa. “That's not the way they operate,” Moss said.
But whether they're a typical conspiracy theory or not, the rumors underline an element of Zimbabwe's crisis. This is a situation where Beijing is viewed as a player — and Washington is not.
China's links to Zimbabwe are long-standing. During his war against the white-dominated Rhodesian government, then-rebel leader Mugabe turned to Beijing for support after his attempts to get Soviet backing for his Zimbabwe African National Union militant group failed. Beijing and Harare formally established diplomatic relations on the day of Zimbabwe's independence, April 18, 1980, with Mugabe making a visit to China the next year.
As Mugabe's international isolation grew over the years, he increasingly looked to China for help. In 2003, Zimbabwe launched its “Look East” policy that sought to find new international partners after relations with Europe soured. China soon came to dominate the policy. Between 2010 and 2015, China granted Zimbabwe over $1 billion in low-interest loans, and Zimbabwe reciprocated by making the Chinese yuan an official currency.
In return, Mugabe offered effusive personal praise for Xi. The former anti-colonial crusader stood up for the Chinese leader during the 2015 China-Africa summit in Johannesburg. “He is doing to us what we expected those who colonized us yesterday to do,” Mugabe said after criticisms of Chinese investment in Africa. “We will say he is a God-sent person.”
The Chinese were portrayed as “potential saviors” in Zimbabwe, said Moss. “There were big promises of how the Chinese were going to turn Zimbabwe's economy around,” he said. Ultimately, that didn't happen, and part of the problem may have been Mugabe himself.
Yun Sun, an expert on Chinese funding at the Stimson Center in Washington, said that Mugabe's preferences for nationalization and indigenization in his economic policies, plus his domestic political turmoil, had made China's large investment in Zimbabwe look risky and led to “complaints and grievances” in Beijing. China wouldn't actively support a plot to get rid of Mugabe, Sun said, “but if there is a domestic campaign to make him gone, China won't be cheering for him, either.”
In official statements, China has offered little support for Mugabe. Speaking on Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the relationship between Zimbabwe and China would not change because of the situation in the country, adding that Beijing hoped “that the situation in Zimbabwe will become stable and the issues will be resolved peacefully and appropriately.”
Meanwhile, an op-ed in China's state-run Global Times newspaper offered a more positive view of the coup. “We have good reasons to believe that as Zimbabwe enters the post-Mugabe era, China will see an improved environment to cooperate with the country,” wrote Wang Hongyi, a research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Friendly ties will embrace new development opportunities.”
The positive comments from Beijing stand in contrast to a muted tone in Washington, perhaps reflecting the fact that the State Department's top position for Africa, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is vacant. “There is no political leader at the state department on Africa policy who would drive an aggressive response here,” Moss said. The United States had generally taken a wait-and-see approach to Mugabe, Moss said, and this is now an opportunity for Washington to push for human rights and democracy in Zimbabwe.
But the man most expected to become its next leader, former vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa, is unlikely to address those issues. Once a close ally of Mugabe, Mnangagwa was sanctioned by the United States in 2003 and described as one of several officials “who undermine democratic processes and institutions in Zimbabwe.”
Such concerns are unlikely to worry China, however. “China has significant investment in and lending to Zimbabwe,” said David Dollar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was the U.S. Treasury's economic and financial emissary to China between 2009 and 2013. “Its main interest is economic stability and reform.”
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