China draws back from role as 'all-weather friend' to Zimbabwe

Residents of Harare, Zimbabwe, wait in line in July to buy loaves of bread under government-ordered price controls.
Residents of Harare, Zimbabwe, wait in line in July to buy loaves of bread under government-ordered price controls. Shashank Bengali / MCT

BEIJING — China acknowledged Tuesday that it has slowed investment in Zimbabwe, a longtime African ally teetering on economic collapse, in a sign that it may be heeding Western demands that it quit backing regimes considered despotic.

The withdrawal of economic support from Zimbabwe's largest investor and only major global backer is a serious blow to Robert Mugabe, an 83-year-old liberation hero who has clung to power in Zimbabwe for nearly three decades.

Chinese officials had dismissed a British news report in late August that said China had suspended investment projects in Zimbabwe.

But a senior Chinese diplomat, Liu Guijin, a former ambassador to Zimbabwe and South Africa who is the nation's special envoy to Sudan, acknowledged a slowdown in investment and cast the issue in terms of economic turmoil gripping Zimbabwe.

"China's assistance to Zimbabwe is mainly humanitarian aid, because in terms of other development assistance we still have some difficulties," Liu said at a press briefing. "In the past, China has provided substantial development aid. Now, with the devaluation of the currency and deterioration of the economic situation, the outlook for this aid is not very good."

With inflation galloping at 7,600 percent, Zimbabwe is spiraling toward economic collapse. Four out of five of its 12 million citizens have sunk below the poverty line, according to a report issued Tuesday by the International Crisis Group, a Belgian-based organization pressing for nonviolent crisis resolution.

"A military-led campaign to slash prices has produced acute food and fuel shortages, and conducting any business is becoming almost impossible," the report said.

As recently as 2005, China labeled itself Mugabe's "all-weather friend."

Beijing has maintained deep trade and military ties with Mugabe's regime, investing in gold and tobacco production, while providing Harare, the capital, with fighter planes, soft loans and crews to build a sports stadium, schools and a hospital. It also has been unconditionally supportive of Zimbabwe in global forums, helping fend off United Nations probes.

But Liu said that "there does exist a problem with the situation in Zimbabwe" and that Chinese diplomats have "introduced to them our policy of building a harmonious society and a harmonious world."

China is reluctant to go beyond suspending investment, Liu said, because "we know that African countries, including South Africa, don't want to internationalize the issue of Zimbabwe. . . . We support their efforts."

China, eager to fuel its voracious economy, has faced criticism that it's stoking violence in Africa by supporting repressive regimes where it has major investments or buys oil. The criticism has been sharpest over its ties to oil-rich Sudan, where conflict in the troubled Darfur region has left 200,000 people dead in the past four years.

China, wary of nascent calls in the West to boycott the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing over Darfur, agreed to an international peacekeeping presence in Sudan and deployed its soldiers on U.N. peacekeeping missions there. The latest deployment, a 435-member Chinese unit, left for Sudan on Monday.

Elsewhere in Africa, China continues its free-spending campaign for resources.

The latest example came Monday in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where news reports say Chinese officials signed deals for $5 billion in loans for construction of railways, highways, universities, housing complexes and investment to extract minerals, such as cobalt, copper, gold and diamonds.