Photograph — South China Morning Post

The race for the presidency in Zimbabwe is heating up as candidates begin to declare their manifestos. At the centre of the main opposition party’s agenda is a plan to evict China from the country. Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change party opposition leader Nelson Chamisa last week announced that if he wins the presidential elections in June this year, he would send Chinese businesses packing. Chamisa said this while speaking at a party rally in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.

Opposition parties whipping up sentiments against foreigners in the run-up to elections is fast becoming a norm, and Nelson Chamisa borrowed a leaf from that book. He seemingly attributed Zimbabwe’s failing economy to the fault of the Chinese. “I have said, beginning September when I assume office, I will call the Chinese and tell them the deals they signed are unacceptable and they should return to their country,” Chamisa said.

China has the highest investment in Zimbabwe, having invested billions into the Zimbabwean economy in the past 10 years. Its investments became more important after sanctions from the US and UK in the past two decades rendered the Zimbabwean economy nonfunctional, and plunged the country into recession under Robert Mugabe’s tenure.

China and Zimbabwe’s relationship, however, has existed longer than that, a relationship that extends to Chairman Mao’s time as leader of China. A young Mugabe adopted the ideology of China’s former leader Mao Zedong. Mugabe also financed his fight against British imperialism with China’s money. Since the last visit of China’s president Xi JinPing to Zimbabwe in 2015, China has donated about $5 billion in investments and aid to Zimbabwe.

However, it was clear to all that even China was relieved to see Mugabe step down last year. According to reports, Zimbabwe’s Army Chief, General Chiwenga persuaded Mugabe to step down from office, with China’s backing. And now, the new president and Mugabe’s former deputy, Emerson Mnangagwa is hoping to get the same assistance Mugabe had from China. His first trip out of the continent as president was to China, where he is alleged to have signed some deals, deals which were the talking point of the Zimbabwean opposition leader.

“I have seen the deals that Ngwena [President Emmerson Mnangagwa] has entered into with China and others, they are busy asset-stripping the resources of the country,” Chamisa said, alluding to the Chinese model of doing business with Africa. Many of the Chinese investments on the continent are for its infrastructural development; the building of dams, railways, stadiums, textile factories, hospitals, schools etc. These investments are in the form of “concessional” loans, while China, in turn, takes the loanee’s natural resources as collateral.

Analysts have advised caution, especially when countries overestimate their abilities to repay the loans, and then request for more loans, further miring themselves in debt – ‘Chinese debt trap’ it is called. An example of these scenarios is Kenya, who owes more than half of its external debt to China. Countries like Sri Lanka and Djibouti have had to give up some of their most important national infrastructures after failing to repay loans.

For Chamisa, winning against the ruling Zimbabwean party Zanu-PF at the presidential elections will not be his only challenge; reducing the influence of China in Zimbabwean politics is another. China has always been close to the ruling party, and Zimbabwe’s army too, financing the party activities and also building a new National Defense College for the Zimbabwean army.

The 40-year-old Chamisa recently replaced Morgan Tsivangirai, a former Zimbabwean prime minister who was Mugabe’s main rival for over 30 years, and ironically died weeks after Mugabe stepped down. Chamisa seems to be Zanu-PF’s new nemesis, but the hold of the ruling party on Zimbabwean politics would still be a problem in the elections later this year. Mugabe might be gone, but his party still remains, along with the same people who legitimized his more than 20 years of authoritarian rule.

Inciting the people against Chinese investments and businesses in the country is one way of trying to lower the ruling party’s hold on power, and is fast becoming the norm across the continent, especially in Southern Africa. There’s a growing anti-Chinese sentiment on the continent, and a rhetoric like Chamisa’s will do nothing to help. His rhetoric also seems to cast a shadow on Zimbabwe’s investment environment; will other foreign investors receive the same treatment Chamisa wants to mete out to Chinese investors?

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