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Peeking Behind the Curtain: Analyzing Chinese Aid and Influence in Zimbabwe

The Chinese government has financed a wide range of humanitarian assistance and economic development activities in Zimbabwe. The volume and details of these activities have until now proven opaque.

July 30, 2013
Amber Will

With today’s presidential elections and speculation surrounding the possible retirement of President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is squarely in the spotlight. Western governments and international funding agencies have been loath to provide assistance to the Mugabe regime in the face of its controversial economic policies, alleged human rights abuses, and chronic inability to repay external debts. Nonetheless, the Mugabe regime has successfully maintained close ties with one powerful ally – the Chinese government.

The Chinese government has financed a wide range of humanitarian assistance and economic development activities in Zimbabwe. The volume and details of these activities have until now proven opaque. In this post, I examine the official Chinese financing given to Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2011 using a new dataset compiled by AidData.

A Closer Look at Zimbabwe

Using media sources to compile granular information on Chinese humanitarian assistance and economic development projects, AidData uncovered $3.82 billion in official Chinese finance to Zimbabwe, accounting for 4.9% of all official Chinese financing to Africa. The graph below shows commitments of official Chinese finance(i.e., flows of official development assistance and other official finance) to Zimbabwe by commitment year. : All figures were taken from AidData’s “China’s Development Finance to Africa: Version 1.0” dataset, and may not reflect the most recent data available on

Figure 1: Chinese Official Finance* to Zimbabwe 2000-2011 (in millions 2009 USD)

*includes all non-investment official projects which are in the commitment, implementation, or completion stage

While over $3 billion dollars of official Chinese finance in this period were investments in agriculture, forestry, and fishing projects, the Chinese government also supported activities related to food security, military support, and humanitarian response. It is not obvious, however, that all of these activities were of benefit to the Zimbabwean people. Media reports indicate that Chinese financing has enabled the Mugabe regime to construct a new presidential mansion, purchase equipment to censorindependent radio and television stations, as well as monitor the political activities of opponent politicians and their constituents in the 2005 presidential election. The graph below displays the amount of Chinese official finance given to Zimbabwe by sector, and shows that Communications receives significant support, receiving $107.03 million.

Figure 2: Chinese Official Finance to Zimbabwe by Sector Type, 2000-2011 (in 2009 USD)

Projects related to energy generation and supply received the largest portion of Chinese official finance between 2000-2011. Many of these Chinese-financed infrastructure projects require the use of Chinese private sector companies or state-owned enterprises, some of which have attracted criticism for their poor treatment of local Zimbabwean employees. International human rights organizations claim that the Zimbabwean government relies too much on Chinese support, and therefore is unwilling to apply pressure to Chinese companies to improve local labor conditions.

What Motivates the Provision of Chinese Development Finance?

The isolated Mugabe regime has certainly benefited from Chinese financing, but how does China gain from its investments in Zimbabwe’s development? China has cultivated an ally, as evidenced by President Mugabe’s public praise of the country in many of his international speeches. Moreover, the Chinese government has parlayed funding for development projects into securing licenses for Chinese companies toextract diamonds and other natural resources in high demand at home.

China has provoked criticism  for the scale of its assistance to regimes with poor human rights’ records, such as President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  Human Rights Watchhas accused China of “not only prop[ing] up some of the continent's worst human rights abusers, but also weaken[ing] the leverage of others trying to promote greater respect for human rights.” Other NGOs and human rights groups have criticized China's policy of “stadium diplomacy”. But few of these claims have been subjected to careful empirical scrutiny due to previous data limitations. AidData’s database on Chinese official finance provides a unique opportunity to address these knowledge gaps by facilitating more granular analysis of the drivers and effects of Beijing's overseas development activities.

**EDITOR'S NOTE: This post has been updated with corrected data after we discovered some inaccuracies in the original version published on July 17, 2013. Our apologies for any confusion and we hope you enjoy the post!**

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This blog post was written by Amber Will, MPP/ J.D.’16, an AidData Research Assistant at the College of William & Mary.