Beijing’s shadow over Zimbabwe coup

Zimbabwe’s top military commander was in China a couple of days before the coup. China is the African country’s top economic partner. Bilateral relations go back to the 1960s. Mugabe’s economic mismanagement and the nationalisation of diamond mines are behind the tensions between the two countries. Beijing likes the vice president.

Harare (AsiaNews/Agencies) – During the 48 hours that preceded the coup that deposed the "old lion" of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe, General Constantino Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, was in Beijing to meet members of the Chinese military, including two top high-ranking officers and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (pictured).

For Chinese Foreign Minister Geng Shuang, the meeting was a "normal military exchange". But the timing raises questions about Beijing’s attitude towards the ongoing transition in Zimbabwe, of which China is the top economic partner.

On 15 November, the Zimbabwe military staged a coup against President Mugabe, who has been in power since independence in 1980. But in the past 15 years, his country has been plagued by a worsening economic crisis. On average, Zimbabweans are 15 per cent poorer now than they were in 1980.

The latest crisis was unleashed by Mugabe's attempt to have his wife succeed him as president.

By abandoning Mugabe, its historic partner, because of economic policies that have negatively impacted its interests, Beijing has also abandoned its policy of non-interference in the domestic affairs of its partners.

John Everard, a former UK ambassador to North Korea and China expert, is convinced that in this coup Beijing played "a role similar to that of the CIA in the 1970s". If this is the case, it would be a radical departure from China’s traditional foreign policy.

Beijing is still hoping that a peaceful transition will protect its interests, and maintain continuity in the business relations between the two countries.

Certainly, China's position vis-à-vis the "old lion" has changed. Although there are no official governmental statements, the Chinese position has been clearly expressed in the Global Times, the Communist Party’s official paper.

In an article published on 16 November, Wang Hongyi writes that the Mugabe government had brought “huge losses” to China, and a change of government would benefit both countries.

Relations between China and Mugabe go back to the 1960s when the Asian country backed Mugabe’s ZANU party and its guerrilla in the struggle for the country’s liberation from White minority rule.

After independence in 1980, the two countries established official diplomatic relations, followed by an official visit by a Mugabe to Beijing the next year.

In 2001, the Zimbabwean leader began drawing closer to China’s communist leaders under a “Look East” policy when Western countries imposed sanctions on his country over land seizures and human rights concerns. “We have turned East, where the sun rises, and given our backs to the West, where the sun sets,” he famously said.

Now China is unhappy about Mugabe’s mismanagement of Zimbabwe’s economy and is believed to favour as his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who’s seen as more of an “economic pragmatist,” said Derek Matyszak, a Harare-based senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.

A big source of tension between Beijing and Harare was Mugabe’s abrupt move to nationalise Zimbabwe’s diamond mines.