“Let me be a Hitler tenfold,” President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said in March 2003 to opponents of his racist campaign against whites. The opposition party led a national strike that week, and Mugabe set the dogs on them. Patricia Mukonda, a opposition secretary, said they broke into her home, beat her, raped her with a baton, and forced her six-year-old son to watch.
The United States condemned the attacks, saying they were “directly attributable” to Mugabe’s Hitler remarks, and froze the assets of 77 Zimbabwean officials, including Mugabe, while also working to get food supplies to Zimbabwe’s people. Less than a year later, Fu Ziying, China’s deputy commerce minister, signed an agreement strengthening trade relations between China and Zimbabwe.
After meeting with Mugabe, Fu said, “It’s apparent that his Excellency has been very good.”Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Mugabe’s Gukurahundi massacres lasted through half of the 1980s and left up to 30,000 dead. Chenjerai Hunzvi, Mugabe’s enforcer, led shock troops against white farmers. He liked to be called “Hitler,” too. Operation Murambatsvina, begun in 2005, forced 700,000 into homelessness or unemployment. And then, of course, there’s the time Mugabe said, “The only white man you can trust is a dead white man.”
“How could the breadbasket of Africa have deteriorated so quickly into the continent’s basket case?” Samantha Power once asked. “The answer is Robert Mugabe.”
Yes, Mugabe had been “very good.”
Perhaps that’s why he won the Confucius Peace Prize last year, or why President Xi Jinping visited Zimbabwe last December, when Mugabe called him a “true and dear friend,” or why the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe said last month the two nations have been friends “through thick and thin.” The embassy justified its support of the government by saying it was elected (though the elections were rigged) and because it’s internationally recognized (though recognition didn’t stop China from supporting unrecognized Algeria or opposing recognized Taiwan).
So how do we reconcile China’s support of Mugabe?
One way is to note, as David Plotz has argued, that Mugabe isn’t a “carnivorous” dictator like Mobutu Sese Seko or Idi Amin. With China’s help, he liberated his nation from colonial power. He’s wicked, but so were the white Rhodesians before him. Meanwhile, Washington supported Mobutu’s kleptocracy and the U.S. embassy in Kampala didn’t shut it doors until 1976, more than halfway through Amin’s psychotic reign. Plus, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also met with Mugabe this year and avoided discussing human rights. But tu quoque arguments highlight hypocrisy; they don’t justify immorality.
Another approach is to say that China is apolitical. As Andrew Malone argues, the West makes demands when providing aid, partly to “ensure dictators do not pocket millions,” whereas Chinese money ends up right in those very pockets. He quotes Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Zhou Wenzhong, who smugly says “business is business” and that China shouldn’t meddle in politics. Malone, however, feels “Africa deserves better.” And yes, it does, but if you think colonial rule was the greatest harm to ever befall the continent, you’re inclined to conclude that getting out of its way is more important than lending a forceful hand. Besides, the problem with the apolitical argument is that, as we’ve already seen with Algeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, it isn’t true. China doesn’t really keep its nose clean.
Yet another argument is that as long as Africans are happy with it, what business is it of ours? But Africa is not a monolith, and African opinions on the matter vary. For all its cozying up to Mugabe, for instance, China’s name in Zimbabwe is mud. And indeed, some of the awful rumors regarding Chinese companies are the wages of sin.
“Workers continue to endure various forms of physical torture at the hands of these Chinese employers right under the noses of the authorities,” a Zimbabwean union spokesman said in 2011.
Also that year, a Zimbabwean named Patrick Makaza, who formerly worked at a Chinese restaurant in his home country, said he quit his job because his Chinese bosses routinely beat their workers, adding, “Working for these men from the East is hell on earth.”
The Atlantic reported both these stories, suggesting China’s presence in the nation was attended by “hints of colonialism.” But China’s activities aren’t colonial in any real sense—there’s no political control, no occupation, no land grabs. Just business deals, brokered with democratic and despotic leaders alike. And sometimes, even when it seems to be working with despots, it really isn’t.
For instance, in Guinea in 2009, when Moïse Dadis Camara seized power and immediately launched a campaign of rape and slaughter, China was there to cut a deal. A Human Rights Watch report included eyewitness accounts of soldiers shoving guns into women’s vaginas and firing them. One teacher who was gang-raped said, “three meters away another woman was being raped, and after they had finished, one of them took his bayonet and stuck her in her vagina, and then licked the blood from his knife.”
The United Nations called for a trial, but the China International Fund signed a $7 billion deal with Guinea in late 2009, roughly one month after Camara’s massacre. Despicable, right? But the CIF is a private Hong Kong-based company and the deal had no discernable financier. In other words, Beijing wasn’t backing it.
But let’s look at a case where China clearly did back a despot: Sudan. The War in Darfur broke out in 2003 when President Omar al-Bashir targeted the nation’s non-Arab population. Several times in 2004, China threatened to veto UN attempts to sanction Sudan. In 2009 and 2010, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on charges of genocide. But in 2011, he was welcomed to Beijing with open arms, and in 2015, Beijing built him a presidential palace.
So what do we make of this? Deborah Bräutigam, director of the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), has argued that if China were only in Sudan for oil, it wouldn’t have supported the independence of South Sudan, where all the oil lies. The Council on Foreign Relations, however, notes China supplied arms to Sudan to crush the southern rebels, and only later “recalibrated its policy” to support the south.
Does this mean China made a cold, calculated oil grab? Not exactly. When I asked Bräutigam about this, she replied that Beijing could have locked down on the oil rather than back a free South Sudan, which has actually caused headaches in terms of keeping the oil pipeline open. But instead, China sensed a change in the wind and went with it.
The overall theme here, Beijing’s African leitmotif, if you will, is, simply put, engagement. That simple tenet explains Beijing’s ties to Mugabe, Camara, al-Bashir, and, while we’re at it, most African democracies. Out of Africa’s 52 nations, about a dozen are democracies — including Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, and South Africa — and China has solid ties with all of them. It supports African democracies as readily as it supports African regimes. And, again, the reason is engagement.
“The Chinese believe you get more progress on issues by ‘constructive engagement’ and diplomacy than by embargoes and sanctions,” Brätigam says, “and constructive engagement requires an attitude of respect.”
She adds, “It’s a consistent policy — unlike ours where we apply embargoes and sanctions on the basis of inconsistent criteria. They are also more likely to follow the lead of regional organizations like the [African Union] or the League of Arab States when it comes to issues in those regions, than the U.S. or the EU.”
China engages Africa not for the purpose of requisitioning resources, but because China would prefer to see a world in which many regions share power rather than one in which a single superpower dominates. One can argue engagement isn’t as effective as isolation, but one cannot argue it’s malicious.
However, learning to see China as it sees itself only gets us halfway home. The real challenge is finding an understanding that bridges Western and Chinese perspectives, and that’s something I’ll consider in the final part of this series.
Part I of this series can be found here.