HARARE – China’s new ambassador to Zimbabwe Lin Lin would have been impressed had he chosen to use the toilets at Harare International Airport when he touched down on his new mission last month.
His country’s strong presence in Zimbabwe would not have been lost on him as the toilets are labelled in Mandarin.
Not only that.
University of Zimbabwe has a Confucius Institute introduced in 2006 to promote learning of Mandarin and Chinese culture.
The police are not left out.
With legal and illegal Chinese migrants flooding the country, police have done a first by opening a desk specifically to deal with cases involving the Chinese.
All fine and good.
But Beijing’s presence in Zimbabwe also has a stink to it that leaves Lin Lin’s work cut out for him.
With his country growing in stature as Zimbabwe’s favourite trading partner, the controversies surrounding Beijing-funded investments could turn out to be some of Lin Lin’s biggest headache.
They have caused controversy by building on wetlands, are constantly in dispute with labour and have had to fight accusations of killing tortoises and dogs for meals.
However, the Chinese embassy in Harare feels the negativity surrounding Beijing’s presence in Zimbabwe pales in comparison to its commitment to helping Zimbabwe, a country it has enjoyed cordial relations with since pre-independence days.
In response to queries from the Daily News on Sunday, the embassy said China and Zimbabwe enjoyed a long-standing friendship, cemented by the establishment of diplomatic relations on April 18, 1980, Zimbabwe’s Independence Day.
“During the past 32 years, the two countries have enjoyed ever-deepening traditional friendship, frequent personnel exchanges and fruitful cooperation in all fields, bringing tangible benefits to the two peoples.
China-Zimbabwe friendship has become the precious wealth of the two peoples, and thanks to the concerted efforts of the two sides, it is keeping glowing with new vitality,” the embassy said in a response.
“The Chinese Embassy is committed to promoting comprehensive relations between China and Zimbabwe, enhancing China-Zimbabwe friendship, and providing timely and efficient services for the Chinese people who are living, working and traveling in Zimbabwe as well as Zimbabwean people from all walks of life.”
China’s long-standing relations with Zimbabwe are paying off now-albeit coming in as a substitute for former colonisers who have deserted the southern African country.
Stung by sanctions imposed on his inner circles and companies belonging to Zanu PF officials by Western countries at the turn of the decade, President Robert Mugabe introduced a “Look East policy” that he says has since been adopted by the entire continent.
The policy, though aimed at the wider Asian continent, gave preference to Chinese investors to come and set up shop in Zimbabwe.
Signs of the coming of the Chinese were quite telling. The much hyped “buy two get one for free” introduced Chinese’ mass businesses and there was the MA 60 aircraft deal between Zimbabwe and a Chinese company China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (Catic).
These were to be followed rapidly by investments in the retail sector with small shops mushrooming everywhere in downtown Harare. And then there is the diamond mining, construction and property business.
But even with boom in investments from the world’s most populous nation, it remains a hard task to get the exact number of Chinese companies officially operating in Zimbabwe.
Even the Zimbabwe Investment Authority (Zia), which acts as the first port of call for any bona fide investor to Zimbabwe, appears not ready to discuss the issue.
Questions send to Zia headquarters on Chinese investments in Zimbabwe were not responded to a month before publication of this article.
Although officials were keen to provide information about other investments, they appeared reluctant to issue information on the Chinese.
“That information needs clearance,” an official who asked for anonymity told the Daily News on Sunday after weeks of pestering for an official response.
Zimtrade, the country’s premier trade promotion body, could only provide generalised information about Chinese investments in Zimbabwe.
But the Chinese investments in the public domain, such as the mortgaging of diamond earnings from Marange for a defence college, have often caused furore.
Parliament has approved a $100 million loan from China to build the military college just outside Harare last year. Anjin Investments, a diamond joint venture between the Zimbabwean government and a Chinese construction company Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Group is building the college.
The deal was only ratified in parliament when construction was already underway. The loan will be repaid with diamond money from Anjin operations.
Just last month, Parliament was hastily recalled to ratify a $164 million Chinese deal involving the construction of the Victoria Falls Airport ahead of the United Nations World Tourism Assembly (UNWTO) next year. Zimbabwe will have to surrender earnings from Harare International Airport and Victoria Falls Airport if it fails to meet its part of the bargain.
Zimbabweans trying to make a living by starting small businesses are feeling the pinch of the Chinese invasion.
“The Chinese, like any other investors, are welcome but they have to come and build industries which will offer people employment,” said Thulani Mkwebo, a small shop owner in downtown Harare, where Chinese shops litter streets.
Resentment against the Chinese can be felt in many parts of Zimbabwe, something Lin Lin will have to fix.
Recently, there were wildcat strikes by pro-Zanu PF youths at several foreign-owned small business ventures.
Big firms are not spared.
In recent months Zimbabwean construction workers employed by a Chinese construction and mining company, Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company (AFECC), downed their tools.
They were protesting against bad labour practices ranging from physical abuse to irregular working hours and low wages pegged at about $4-a-day — far below the rates set by the Zimbabwe National Employment Council (ZNEC) for the construction industry, which are between $1,00 and $1,50 an hour.
AFECC also has problems with workers at its Anjin diamond Mine at Marange, where it has dismissed close to a thousand constantly striking workers.
While the Chinese have many interests in Zimbabwe, the retail, mining and construction has been their main attraction.
According to a 2011 report by the Zimbabwe Economic Policy Analysis and Research Unit, Zimbabwe’s exports to China rose from $100 million in 2000 to $167 million in 2003, but fell to $140 million in 2009.
Imports from China, meanwhile, climbed from $30 million in 2000 to $197 million in 2007, before taking a dip in 2008.
This country’s exports to China are largely in the form of raw materials, with tobacco and minerals being the main products. In turn Zimbabwe receives loans and various finished products — most of which are popularly referred to here as “Zhing Zhongs” (poor quality products).
Marah Hativagone, a former president of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) and chairperson of Zia, said the Chinese should not compete for downstream industries traditionally reserved for locals.
“We want to see more technology transfer from foreigners. They must not come here and do all sorts of funny things, taking advantage of the existing relationship between the two countries,” she said.
“There is no way Zimbabweans can compete with the Chinese, because they use cheap labour and mass produce while half the time we have no water and electricity in our industries,” said Hativagone.
She also accused them of being cheats.
“Sometimes Zia gives them manufacturing licenses, but they go and open restaurants,” she said.
Beijing is aware of the jitters and has warned against undoing the existing relationship.
“China understands the need for indigenisation and empowerment but we hope Zimbabwe will protect the legitimate right of Chinese businesses in the country,” Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan told the media during a visit to Harare last year.
But there is also popular support for the Chinese doing business here.