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Zimbabwe’s political, economic, and people-to-people relations with China are regarded as some of the most robust on the African continent, chiefly owing to the historical relationship between the two countries. The beginning of the relationship can be traced back to the southern African nation’s armed struggle for independence in the 1970s.


Written by Ronald Chipaike.
Updated on 8 April 2021.

Historical Background

Zimbabwe’s political, economic, and people-to-people relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are regarded as some of the most robust on the African continent, chiefly owing to the historical relationship between the two countries. The beginning of the relationship can be traced back to the southern African nation’s armed struggle for independence in the 1970s. It was during this time—a period replete with Cold War proxy wars and ideological battles—that China provided the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), the military wing of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe, with training, weapons, and logistical support for their armed struggle, an assistance that was crucial for its final success. The ZANU also made use of Mao Zedong’s teachings on guerrilla warfare as a training manual for their cadres. The ZANLA, together with the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union led by Joshua Nkomo (an organisation that was supported by the Soviet Union), fought against Rhodesian forces until 1979. At Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, China became one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with the new state now led by Robert Mugabe.

When Mugabe became Prime Minister in 1980, he pronounced and implemented an independent (non-aligned) and pragmatic foreign policy. His first speech at the United Nations in 1980 indicated this direction. This was also in line with China’s anti-imperialist foreign policy doctrine at the time. However, on the ground Mugabe had more beneficial political and economic relations with Britain and the West than with China, despite the fact that the country had helped his regime to bring about Zimbabwe’s independence. This was reflected in the fact that in 1980 China was not invited to a Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR) exercise which was chiefly conducted by the British through the British Military Assistance and Training Team (BMATT). In the following years, Mugabe went on to get a knighthood from Britain, as well as significant aid from Western countries, including the United States. This included 417 million USD from the World Bank and 204 million USD from the USA between 1980 and 1985. This funding was intended for post-war infrastructural development initiatives such as building schools and hospitals.

While leaning towards the West, true to his pragmatic policy, Robert Mugabe also maintained a cordial relationship with China. This was meant to strengthen his leverage and enlarge the room for manoeuvre in his interactions with other external partners. As a result, in 1981 and 1985 he travelled to Beijing and obtained aid and loans for various infrastructure projects, such as the National Sports Stadium in Harare. During Mugabe’s 1985 visit to China, the two countries also established a Joint Economic and Trade Commission, and the most recent meeting was held in 2017. In 1989 Robert Mugabe repaid China’s goodwill towards his regime by supporting China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown. 

However, from the turn of the twenty-first century, Zimbabwe lost favour with the West as the government led by Mugabe was sanctioned for human rights violations, resorting to state-sanctioned political violence against opposition parties, and implementing a violent land reform programme in which the state forcibly took land occupied by white people and redistributed it to black people. It was in this context that in 2003 Mugabe fully embraced the support of the Chinese government through the Look East Policy (LEP). That year, Mugabe announced that Zimbabwe was going back to those who had historically been its truest friends, that is China. As a result, China then began to increase trade with, investment in, and aid to the southern African state, and also began to defend it at crucial international fora. For instance, following a sham election run-off in June 2008, which was preceded by widespread state-sponsored violence against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)—the opposition led by Morgan Tsvangirai—China together with Russia vetoed a proposed UN resolution to sanction Zimbabwe at the Security Council. After the removal of Mugabe from power in 2017 through a military takeover, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new civilian leader, has continued to tout China as Zimbabwe’s all-weather friend. At the same time, some Western countries—including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia—have maintained sanctions on the country, accusing the Mnangagwa Administration of continuing to ‘use state-sanctioned violence against peaceful protestors and civil society, as well as against labour leaders and members of the political opposition’. In such a context, the political interactions between Zimbabwe and China have continued to grow in importance to the point that, in 2018, the bilateral relationship has been elevated to the level of a ‘comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership’. 

BRI Status

Zimbabwe was not invited to be part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) until 2019, after the country’s Minister of Information, Monica Mutsvangwa,  attended of the Belt and Road Forum. Although little activity or discussion about the BRI has taken place in the country since then, it is worth noting that some projects have been lined up for funding under the Initiative. These include the funding and construction of the Kunzvi Dam and the Harare–Chirundu highway, the rehabilitation of Harare’s water system, the refurbishment of the Sable Chemicals fertiliser plant, a power transmission arrangement, and an agreement for the export of citrus fruits to China. These projects are expected to increase Chinese participation in Zimbabwe’s economy as well as contribute to the country’s goal of achieving a middle-income economy by 2030, a plan popularly known as ‘Vision 2030’.

Current Economic Relations

Trade: Official trade figures for 2019 show that Zimbabwe’s exports to China were worth 974 million USD while importing 368 million USD’s worth of goods. Zimbabwe mainly exports tobacco, cotton, and various minerals to China, while imports from China include electrical goods, auto parts, and various household goods. China is Zimbabwe’s largest market for flue cured tobacco, with over 200 million USD’s worth of trade in 2017. This largely owes to the out-grower scheme used by Chinese companies, especially Tian Ze Tobacco Company, a subsidiary of the Chinese state monopoly China Tobacco, which is involved in contract farming with small holder farmers. While Zimbabwe may not be an important economic partner to China owing to its ailing economy and small population of 15 million, China presents an important opportunity for Zimbabwe to diversify its economic partnerships in an effort to defeat the sanctions imposed by the West.

Investment: Since the imposition of sanctions on Zimbabwe at the turn of the century by its erstwhile partners in the West, China has risen to be the country’s largest foreign investor. However, the investment figures still remain low relative to China’s investment in other African countries. According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, Chinese foreign direct investment in Zimbabwe between 2003 and 2019 amounted to 12.13 billion USD. At the same time, Zimbabwe media have reported some large investment deals, including 3-billion-USD investment in various sectors in 2018, and a 4.2-billion-USD coal deal for the Sengwa coal mining and power plant projects signed between the Zimbabwe government and Chinese companies in 2020. The first phase of the Sengwa Coal Power Plant is being implemented by the Power Construction Corporation of China at a cost of 1.2 billion USD. The project is being funded by the Industrial and Commercial bank of China. The bigger part of the project will be done by China Gezhouba Group at a cost of 3 billion USD. 

Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce.

Aid and other state-backed finance: Since Zimbabwe’s proclamation of the LEP in 2003, China has availed significant lines of credit to the Southern African nation in the form of commercial, concessional, as well as grant funding. These lines of credit and grant support extend across much of the Zimbabwean socio-economic landscape. According to the African Forum and Network on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), a civil society organisation, Chinese government grants and the Export and Import Bank of China (Eximbank) have funded projects in health, water, transport, communication, power, and buildings sectors between 2000 and 2018.

China has also supported Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector. Key government staff are being trained in China. Added to these arrangements, the Chinese funded and set up a 30-million-USD Gwebi Agricultural Technological Demonstration Centre to the west of Harare. The government of Zimbabwe was also awarded with a 200-million-USD buyer’s export credit by China’s Eximbank in 2006 for the purchase of necessary inputs in the country’s agriculture. Overall, Chinese aid and other state-backed finance has created room for some infrastructure projects to be completed in Zimbabwe, in what is a very difficult economic environment.

Key Controversies

The bilateral relationship between China and Zimbabwe has a number of associated controversies. In the political realm, China is accused of aiding an autocratic regime that has survived by rigging elections and meting out violence on political opponents. Owing to its non-interference policy, China does not publicly involve itself in internal matters of independent foreign states, even when the concerned state is blatantly violating human rights. It is in connection with this policy that China has ignored ZANU Patriotic Front ’s use of extreme measures in holding on to power. For instance, in 2005 China did not criticise Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina (literally, ‘remove trash/clean up’), when the Zimbabwean government forcibly destroyed ‘illegal’ urban properties under the guise of cleaning the urban areas, which was in fact a way for the government to disrupt urban areas seen to be strongholds of the political opposition. As a result, thousands were left homeless and without a source of livelihood. A key controversy relating to Chinese engagement in Zimbabwe came to the fore in 2008, when Robert Mugabe was defeated in the first round of the general election by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition. Just prior to the run-off election of 27 June 2008, the government unleashed a violent campaign against opposition supporters to the extent that Tsvangirai withdrew from the presidential race. This prompted the drafting of a sanction resolution against Mugabe’s government, in the UN Security Council, but this was vetoed by Russia and China. This again left China siding with an ‘illegitimate’ regime in Zimbabwe, unconcerned with the plight of Zimbabwean citizens. To make matters worse, in the same year the Chinese sold the Zimbabwean government a variety of weapons. The ship that carried the arms cargo could not dock in Durban owing to protests. Another concern dogging the bilateral relationship is the opacity and secrecy that characterises most dealings. Most major deals that involve government-to-government arrangements have allegedly not been submitted to the Zimbabwean parliament for scrutiny. Rather, they come to the parliament only for rubber stamping after the executive has already signed and completed the deals. This lack of transparency in turn leads to corruption or the suspicion of it.

Added to these concerns is the issue of the abuse of labour rights by Chinese companies doing business in Zimbabwe. There have been accusations of such companies paying low salaries or physically abusing their employees (including beatings and shootings), as well as concerns related to the lack of proper protective wear at industrial sites. In 2020, a Chinese manager at a mine operating in the City of Gweru shot and injured some of his workers owing to a dispute over salaries and working conditions. The Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe was called in to help solve the dispute and the Chinese manager was later arrested and compensation paid to the injured worker.

In-depth Sources

English-language Media:

Local media outlets in English include The Independent and The Financial Gazette.

Books, Scholarly Articles, and Research Reports:

  • African Forum and Network on Debt and Development. 2020. ‘The China-Zimbabwe Relations: Impact on Debt and Development in Zimbabwe.’ African Forum and Network on Debt and Development website. Link
  • Chan, Stephen and Hasu Patel. 2006. ‘Zimbabwe’s Foreign Policy: A Conversation.’ The Round Table 95, no. 384: 175–90.
  • Chipaike, Ronald and Paul Henri Bischoff. 2019. ‘Chinese Engagement of Zimbabwe and the Limits of Elite Agency.’ Journal of Asian and African Studies 54, no. 7: 947–64.
  • Hodzi, Obert, Leon Hartwell, and Nicola De Jager. 2012. ‘“Unconditional Ai”’: Assessing the Impact of China’s Development Assistance to Zimbabwe.’ South African Journal of International Affairs 19, no. 1: 79–103.
  • Mukwereza, Langton. 2013. ‘Reviving Zimbabwe’s Agriculture: The Role of China and Brazil.’ IDS Bulletin 44, no. 4: 116–26. Link.
  • Thompson, Reagan. 2012. ‘“Assessing the Chinese Influence in Ghana, Angola, and Zimbabwe: The Impact of Politics, Partners, and Petro.’ Center for International Security and Cooperation website. Link.
  • Zhang, Chun. 2014. ‘China–Zimbabwe: A Model for China–Africa Relations?’ SAIIA Occasional Paper, No. 205. Pretoria: Global Powers and Africa Programme. Link.

Cover Photo: Victoria Falls, Zimbawe. Credits: @Plb06 (CC).

Updated on 8 April 2021.

Ronald Chipaike holds a PhD in International Relations from Rhodes University, South Africa. Currently, he lectures on International Relations at Bindura University of Science Education in Zimbabwe. His research interests include Africa–China relations and African agency.

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