Chinese Colonialism

I happen to know a bit about Zimbabwe having spent considerable time there off and on in the late nineties through 2001. I came to love the place and its people, black and white, and therefore feel its current suffering on a personal level.

In a recent article in the UK Independent it was brought home to me just how bad things have gotten since I was last in Zimbabwe in late 2001. Unfortunately the link to the Independent article no longer works and I neglected to take a copy of the full article when I read it. Fortunately Norm Geras at Normblog published the key excerpt here.

[Zimbabwe] now has the lowest life expectancy for women anywhere in the world: 34.
The World Health Organisation has plotted this precipitous fall in women’s mortality in the former British colony from 65, little more than a decade ago, to today’s low. Speaking privately, WHO officials admitted to The Independent that the real number may be as low as 30, as the present figures are based on data collected two years ago.

The reasons for this plunge are several. Zimbabwe has found itself at the nexus of an Aids pandemic, a food crisis and an economic meltdown that is killing an estimated 3,500 people every week. That figure is more than those dying in Iraq, Darfur or Lebanon.

3500 dying a week. Worse than Iraq. Than Darfur. Than Lebanon. Speak of the media’s power to choose what is important. Even the article that reports these astonishing situation has disappeared from the web site in a few days. Some articles from 17 November on the Independent website are today pay articles, and some are free and still available, but the articles on Africa from 17 November are neither available nor for sale. Gone down the memory hole.

It seems to me a lot of the explanation for the situation in Zimbabwe lies in understanding Communism in general and Chinese Communism in particular. First, Zimbabwe started off after the war of independence in 1980 as a reasonably stable social democratic country. It didn’t immediately destroy its assets – largely agricultural, but with significant mining and a thriving light industrial base. When the government’s fiscal indiscipline and corruption began to cause economic difficulties in the 90s, things came to a head with the rise of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) in 1999. However, Mugabe and the ruling ZANU PF managed to stay in power by rigging the elections and instituting a remarkable campaign of economic destruction. At first I didn’t recognize this phenomena because Mugabe and the ZANU PF, although having historical connections to Chinese Communist sponsors going back to the 60, did not seem to be a hard core Communist regime. I’m not sure they are much more than thugs but they have increasingly adopted the methodology and rhetoric of a revolutionary movement that claims it is necessary to destroy society in order to rebuild it. Pol Pot comes immediately to mind as well as China’s cultural revolution. But Bob Mugabe is no demented idealist, just a demented war lord interesting in staying in power by any means.

In a brilliant article from mid 2005, anonymous by necessity, the civic action group Sokwanele published an analysis entitled On Becoming a Chinese Colony: If you are interested in what is happening in Zimbabwe I seriously urge you to read the whole thing. The history and the connections between China and other African countries are all discussed. The author(s) are clearly socialists, and even anti-US, but their focus on the problems being caused by Mugabe and ZANU PF and the neo colonial relationship with China never wavers. Here they recount the historical basis for that relationship:

It was not the first time that ZANU PF had turned to China when it had no other friends. In the early 1960′s, when the nationalists decided to demand full independence, they first thought that they could achieve it simply by negotiating with the British government. They were not socialists and were not revolutionaries; they were nationalists, wanting a liberal form of democracy on the British model. But the British could not or would not deliver. The decision to embrace armed struggle drove both ZAPU and ZANU to the “East”. ZAPU, on the scene earlier, had made contact with the Soviet Union. ZANU was forced to make do with the Chinese version of communism; the split between the Soviet Union and China by the early 60′s allowed them space to develop alongside the Soviet-backed ZAPU. ZANU rapidly transformed themselves into socialists and developed a new rhetoric to fit the need for support from China. They sacrificed the freedom to develop their own political line in order to get training, logistics, and political support. And increasingly Chinese ideology seemed to make sense in their struggle to dislodge settler colonialism.

In the 60′s, ZANU needed China to assist with the struggle to overthrow colonialism. China needed ZANU to bolster its quarrel with the Soviets for the control of world communism. China was itself becoming a champion of the oppressed and colonised, in competition with the Soviet Union, and African liberation movements provided suitable clients. The split in the Zimbabwean liberation movement was a golden opportunity.

ZANU PF is again in desperate need of a friend. They have clung to power in Zimbabwe in the face of clear and repeated demonstrations that the people do not want them. They have destroyed an already struggling economy in the name of anti-imperialism and sovereignty. They have alienated their friends of the 1980′s and the 1990′s. What better solution than to turn again to their friend of the 1960′s and 70′s?

Before China, Mugabe first turned too Libya in the late 90s for help and Qaddafi supplied oil for a while but stopped because Zimbabwe was unable to pay. I saw the long lines waiting for fuel at service stations and even sat in them with a friend’s VW. It was clear that the Libyan friendship couldn’t last because we all knew that Mugabe wasn’t going to pay Qaddafi anymore they he was going to pay South Africa for the electricity the country uses or anything else requiring hard currency. I certainly didn’t see it coming at the time, but China was the logical next choice. The Sokwanele article continues:

Quietly, without fanfare, China has been moving into Africa. Africa is the one continent which still has relatively untapped reserves, particularly of fossil fuels and minerals. Her main targets have been Sudan, Nigeria, and Angola. China needs oil, and has been getting it. She has been developing oilfields in Sudan and now Sudan supplies 5% of her oil consumption. Nigeria not only has oil, but also provides a huge market in a country where manufacturing is not well developed. But there is no African country where China would not like to sell her manufactured goods, particularly clothing, shoes, hardware, electronic goods – in fact almost anything, including as we have seen, airplanes. In just three years, from 2001 to 2004, China’s trade with Africa has more than doubled from $US10 billion to $US 20 billion.

For China, Zimbabwe is economic small fry, but for ZANU PF, China is the only way out of a deep hole. ZANU PF needs what it has thrown away from the rest of the world – investment to get the economy going again, investment to cover the foreign currency gap, the energy gap, the food gap, and the agricultural production gap. But ZANU PF needs the Chinese for something more sinister as well – perhaps it is only the Chinese who are prepared to assist them to stay in power against the wishes of their own people. The Chinese have ample experience in controlling restive peoples, both their own and those they have colonised, as in Tibet. They have no compunctions about democracy or human rights, only a single minded obsession with control. And since their own people do not enjoy democratic freedom of expression and participation, they have no check on what types of regimes they support elsewhere. ZANU PF has doubtless observed how China has been able to supply the Sudanese government with military equipment used against their own people and at the same time frustrate any United Nations action against Sudan for the atrocities in Darfur.

With the Chinese connection clearer, we can see the situation in Zimbabwe against the larger pattern of Chinese colonialism. The ‘Communist’ ideology of Robert Mugabe is just a big lie to allow the ZANU PF to stay in power, but with the relationship China better understood the conditions in Zimbabwe no longer seem like the unique tragedy which is presented to us in occasional fleeting reports like the one in the Independent quoted at the beginning of this article. .

In my view, the country that most resembles Zimbabwe, although not mentioned in the Sokwanele article, is North Korea. The key connection is that Chinese seem to be willing to prop up a single leaders in both countries even though the policies of that leader are an absolute disaster for the country in question. Like Zimbabweans, North Koreans are starving at the pleasure of their dictator. Here is the well known image of the difference between North Korea and South as shown on a night satellite photo.


I don’t find a night satellite photo of Zimbabwe on Google images, but the economic situation and the degree of failure is similar. What appalls me is that China seems to prefer to let dictators ruin their countries rather than use their considerable power to put more reasonable governments in power. North Korea threatens the stability of the entire region and its WMD programs could lead directly to a nuclear Japan and even a nuclear Taiwan. China is going to increasingly dominate East Asia regardless. It doesn’t seem to me to have need of a rogue client state making things more difficult in the region. If they see North Korea joining capitalist South Korea as a loss of face then why don’t they see to it that North Korea follows the successful Chinese brand of capitalism instead of continuing to fail miserably. As to Zimbabwe it is not vital to Chinese interests in any way like North Korea – merely a convenient vote against human rights in the UN and place to dump merchandise no one else will buy.

Nonetheless, these two situations give us some idea of the shape of Chinese colonialism. It is pro totalitarian to a surprising degree, tolerating the worst of dictators. It prefers a nominally communist regime regardless of how superficial its ideological commitment. It appears unwilling to share its discovery of Capitalism with its client states despite the fact that such states could join China in an expanding ‘empire’ of totalitarian capitalist regimes.

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