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China’s Role in Zimbabwe – A Neo-Colonial Power in Africa?

As China’s engagement within Africa has increased since the beginning of the 21st century, it is valid to question whether the nation’s role in the continent can be considered neo-colonial. To look at the problem more in-depth, in this article I focus on Zimbabwe – a nation colonised by the United Kingdom (UK) between the 1880s and 1980. Since its independence, Zimbabwe received financial aid and support from Western countries like the UK and United States (US), and institutions like the European Union, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. However, as the West ceased its relationship with the nation due to alleged electoral fraud, massive economic mismanagement, and human rights violations, Zimbabwe implemented the Look East policy in 2003, tightening its relationship with China to maintain economic stability (Youde, 2007). Yet it is questionable whether this pivot to China is beneficial or harmful to Zimbabwe. For the evaluation of this question, I will first define the term neo-colonialism and the two underlying theoretical frameworks, modernisation and dependency theories, before proving that despite China’s investments in Zimbabwe, it acts predominantly as a neo-colonial power.

The Britannica dictionary defines neo-colonialism as a further process of capitalism after the Second World War, wherein former colonies are continuously and indirectly dependent on foreign countries (Halperin, 2020). Those foreign countries hold global power via economic, financial, and trade policies but more so through using under-developed countries as investments, sources of cheap labour, and raw materials. The term is also part of the broad dependency theory (Halperin, 2020).

One crucial theoretical framework for the dependency theory is Immanuel Wallerstein’s World System Theory, which explains how the modern world established and maintains itself. The defining aspect of his theory is the distinction between three world regions: the core, the semi-periphery, and the periphery. Whereas the core regions – the US, mainland Europe, and the UK – are capitalist-structured, have a robust central government, and possess a strong military position, the peripherical regions lack these. The peripheries were colonised or imperialised by the core regions, which accumulated wealth and power by exploiting the periphery of their resources, as well as through slavery and unequal trade. Nowadays, peripheral countries continue to export their raw materials at a low price, provide cheap labour, face unequal trade relations, and lack a secure government. The semi-periphery regions are often former periphery nations that increasingly seek to advance their position in the world economy, and do so through the use of current periphery regions – importing cheap raw materials to produce goods for high revenue sales to core regions (Wallerstein, 2004).

In contrast to that, the modernisation theory assumes that developing or under-developed countries benefit from foreign intervention in their economy, even if forceful, exploitative, or achieved through a colonising manner. Several authors have attempted to show this by comparing the industrialisation process in China and Japan. John Fairbank (2006) states that Japan was able to industrialise much faster than China due to the nation’s acceptance of foreign types of machinery and institutional organisation, while China was reluctant to do so, resulting in a slow industrialisation process. Peter Nolan (1993) notes that Japanese-colonised regions in East Asia like Manchuria, Taiwan and Korea saw a comparatively fast economic development and were able to set the basis for their future economic success, even though at the time of colonisation these regions, especially Manchuria, were massively exploited by Japan.

And it is indeed the case that Zimbabwe has profited from foreign intervention through Chinese engagement with the country. The relationship between Zimbabwe and China has developed since the implementation of the Look East Policy in the early 2000s due to the influence of Mugabe’s goal to strengthen ties with East Asian countries like China, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and North Korea. This approach was favourable to Zimbabwe’s government as many of these countries shared a history of colonisation but have recently risen to become serious competitors to the West, hence making them better options for Zimbabwe to form trade relations with based on shared history (Youde, 2007).

That was especially the case for China. While China was heavily impacted by wars and invasions from more developed foreign countries like Japan, Germany, the US, and UK between the 1840s and 1940s, these foreign countries brought contemporary technology and health measures to China. Hence, China managed not only to expand its engineering and chemical industry, but also its railway infrastructure and consequently the distribution of food and Western medicine (Nolan, 1993). This shows that foreign intervention does help underdeveloped countries to modernise – as both Fairbank and Nolan suggest – meaning that China is now in an economic position to aid struggling countries.

In the case of Zimbabwe, China does so through loans and investments in healthcare, infrastructure development, and the provision of high-end technology. For example, Zimbabwe owns a massive number of rare-earth elements like platinum and copper, but the country lacked the appropriate equipment to extract these resources (Youde, 2007). With China’s assistance, Zimbabwe was able to start trading these valuable resources – resulting in Zimbabwe’s trade volume increasing from 310 million USD in 2003 to 1.1 billion in 2014 (Manon, 2016). Furthermore, China also funded many public infrastructure projects – upgrading the Harare water project, supplying Zimbabwe with medical equipment, taking part in the expansion of the Victoria Falls Airport, as well as improving the Kariba South Hydropower expansion (Manon, 2016).

Thus, China has displayed great effort in supporting Zimbabwe to modernise and advance. The new mining equipment and energy infrastructure set Zimbabwe up for a profitable future, just as foreign countries did in China at the beginning of the 20th century.

However, while China continuously emphasises its goal to build up strong counter-alliances in the global south with previously marginalised countries against the former colonisers (Dirlik, 2007), it did itself become a neo-colonial actor in Zimbabwe.

China was affected negatively by foreign intruders in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by Japan. Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and installed the ‘Manchukuo model’, wherein the region was put under economic control by Japan to fund the expenditures of Japan’s war. Hence, Manchuria was exploited for its valuable resources like iron, coal, copper. An increasing number of Japanese immigrants ran the appropriated or chartered factories in Manchuria, while the local Chinese faced dire working conditions without wages, and minimal food and housing provisions. Additionally, the trade between Japan and Manchuria was in favour of the former. During the Manchukuo model, the price levels of imports from Japan increased by 30% while Manchuria’s export prices declined as much as 44%. Subsequently, the region was massively harmed, with 100-180 billion US-Dollar assets lost in China by 1945 (Deng, 2011). Looking at how China acts economically in Zimbabwe, similar colonial structures to that of the Manchukuo model appear.

China requires rare-earth elements to secure its access to these globally high demanded materials and maintain its own international production. Thus, it comes as no surprise that China heavily invests in Zimbabwe (Youde, 2007). However, this leads to Zimbabwe’s increasing dependency for revenues on these materials, rather than promote the diversification of its economy through a focus on higher-value production and an expansion of intra-regional trade (Hanauer and Morris, 2014). This dependency is increased by the continuous reception of high loans from China, which enables the government to neglect improving their country’s economy as it is not deemed necessary (Shinn, 2013). Additionally, China imports rigorous amounts of natural resources, up to 110 billion US-Dollars’ worth from African countries, while at the same time exporting a vast amount of cheap Chinese goods, undermining the competitiveness of domestic manufacturers (Farineau, 2013). Moreover, the new Chinese founded companies and construction sites prefer to employ Chinese workers, rather than local ones. Managers and foremen are Chinese, with little to no chance for local employees to advance in their careers, and the salary disparity between locals and the Chinese is significant (Hanauer and Morris, 2014). The unfair treatment of national workers reaches its peak in reports of major human rights violations with workers facing slavery-like working conditions, being held in dire housing, not receiving pay, and being violently treated (Chaudhury, 2021).

Especially, due to this last point, China is shown to act as a neo-colonial power towards Zimbabwe. Aligning with Britannica’s definition of the term ‘neo-colonial’, China holds financial and economic power over Zimbabwe with its investment, cheap labour, and exploitation of raw materials. More so, applying Wallerstein’s relationship of semi-peripheral and peripheral countries, it appears that China acts as the neo-colonial semi-periphery by exporting high demanded rare-earth elements from Zimbabwe – a peripheral state – before then producing valuable high-end technology for the global market or selling these materials to core regions (Peerally and Turkina, 2013). Taking these points in consideration, it becomes clear that China can be characterised as a neo-colonial actor in Zimbabwe – raising questions of its influence in Africa as a whole. While China has contributed to the modernisation of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and provided the country with contemporary mining machinery, the exploitative manners of China weigh more heavenly. As such, the modernisation theory does not seem applicable in the case of Zimbabwe. China’s human rights violations towards Zimbabweans, as well as the unequal trade between the two countries, provide stronger evidence that China exploits Zimbabwe for its own good, rather than aid the country to reach self-sufficient modernisation.



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