China is shedding few tears over the ousting of its old friend Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe, fed up with the ruinous state of its economy and confident a new government will not antagonise China or change course on policies towards it.
China pointedly failed to offer any open support for Mugabe after the army took power last week, instead calling vaguely for a peaceful resolution under a legal framework and for talks to bridge differences.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministry said it respected Mugabe’s decision to resign as president, and that he remained a “good friend” of China’s who made “historic contributions to Zimbabwe’s independence and liberation”.
China’s friendship with Mugabe dates back to Zimbabwe’s independence struggle, which China supported.
Mugabe has visited China numerous times, most recently in January when President Xi Jinping told him: “China will never forget its old friends.”
But trade has sagged amid Zimbabwe’s economic turmoil of recent years, and China does not rely on it for any crucial raw materials, unlike Zambia for its copper or Angola and oil.
China’s total trade with Zimbabwe in 2016 was worth $1.11 billion, down 15% on-year, a fraction of the $35.3 billion in trade China and South Africa did. Last year, China did more trade with Tunisia and Senegal than Zimbabwe.
It has been clear to China what has caused the problems, and China showed no desire to prop up Mugabe in his hour of need.
China will not interfere and is happy to let Zimbabwe’s people make their own choices, said Shen Xiaolei, an Africa expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences government think-tank.
“The ruling party is fighting amongst itself, and his economic policies and national governance have had many problems,” Shen said.
“Zimbabwe’s regime was certainly going to get into trouble; I just didn’t expect it would happen so fast.”
In contrast to his elevated status on the continent, Mugabe is reviled in the West as a despot whose disastrous handling of the economy and willingness to resort to violence to maintain power destroyed one of Africa’s most promising states.
In 2015, Mugabe won the Confucius Peace Prize, supposed to be China’s answer to the Nobel Peace Prize, but he turned it down according to Zimbabwe media after he learned it had no connection with the Chinese government.
China had been an important ally on the world stage too for Mugabe.
In 2008, China vetoed a proposed Western-backed U.N. resolution that would have imposed an arms embargo on Zimbabwe and financial and travel restrictions on Mugabe and 13 other officials, saying it would “complicate” conflict.
China has denied that it knew anything about the army take over, despite a visit to Beijing by Zimbabwe’s military chief, General Constantino Chiwenga, shortly before he moved against Mugabe.
On Monday, the Chinese embassy in South Africa said it was “complete nonsense” to suggest Chiwenga had tipped off China about his plan, saying this was an attempt to smear China and that Mugabe had in any case approved Chiwenga’s visit.
However, the embassy also did not offer any support to Mugabe, reiterating that China believed Zimbabwe’s crisis was an internal affair and that African people should resolve African problems.
China’s frustrations with Mugabe had begun to play out in its state media. Over the past week, Chinese media has run unfavourable articles about his wife, Grace, with online news portal Sina calling her “a wanton squanderer”.
On Sunday, the WeChat account of the overseas edition of the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily carried a largely negative account of a 1985 visit by Mugabe to Beijing when he met former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s reforms.
Showing pictures of Zimbabweans carrying bundles of cash during its hyperinflation crisis, the paper said Zimbabwe’s chaos could in large part be traced to Mugabe’s extreme leftist, populist policies.
Zhang Weiwei, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, described a conversation he interpreted between Deng and Mugabe in which Deng warned him of China’s mistakes and urged him to embark on the same reforms as China.
Mugabe did not seem to get the message, Zhang wrote. “This person didn’t take anything in, and that will be his loss,” Zhang cited an exasperated Deng as saying after the meeting.
There is confidence too for China that Mugabe’s former vice president and likely successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose sacking prompted the military to take power, will not upset China.
State media has pointed out he is a known quantity, with frequent visits of his own to China.
Whereas Beijing has worried about anti-Chinese feeling in Zambia, where some workers have accused Chinese firms of abuses and underpaying, there have been no such problems in Zimbabwe.
“China and Africa are all-weather friends, and China and Zimbabwe are no exception,” said Wang Wei, an associate research fellow at the foreign ministry’s China Institute of International Studies.
“It does not matter what changes there are in government officials, the broader trend is still to develop friendly relations between China and Zimbabwe and China and Africa to promote joint prosperity and development.”