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Zimbabwe and China: a toxic legacy

By Philip Machanick - posted Tuesday, 24 June 2008


As the electoral process in Zimbabwe collapses, we should reflect on who could have stopped this sorry chain of events. Much has been said about the ineffectualness of African leaders, who left it to the West to apply most of the pressure on the increasingly brutal Mugabe regime - with the predictable outcome that Mugabe fell back on the "fighting colonialism" line. But we should also not forget the role of China in this debacle; China is increasingly filling the gap left by the growing distaste in the West for dealing with tyrannies, except in the pursuit of its unslakable thirst for oil.

A shipload of Chinese armaments for Zimbabwe was turned away from South Africa on Friday, April 18, 2008, thanks to activist unions, an inquiring press and a strong human rights activist community. Despite claims that it was headed back to China, it has subsequently shown up in Zimbabwe.

The timing of this shipment led to the obvious question: was this the reason for the delays in counting the votes in the now not so recent first-round election?

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Was the government waiting for fresh stocks of ammunition before embarking on all-out war on its own people?

Three million AK47 bullets would go a long way in a country of 12 million (minus whatever number are now refugees). Certainly, the savage violence which led the "opposition" (where else is the biggest party the opposition?) to call off participation in the presidential run-off could have been fuelled by these weapons.

This is not an isolated incident of Chinese complicity in violence in Africa. For example, the Rwanda government imported sufficient machetes from China to give one to every third male member of the population. Then there's Darfur - despite worldwide publicity of horrific crimes of violence, China remains the Sudan's biggest armaments supplier.

Throughout all this - and protests about Tibet and human rights violations generally in China itself - the continuing mantra has been "no interference in internal affairs".

If you check out the Chinese human rights policy in detail, you will see it's very carefully fudged to allow interference where activities "endanger world peace and security", which means "colonialism, racism, foreign aggression and occupation, as well as apartheid, racial discrimination, genocide, slave trade and serious violation of human rights by international terrorist organizations".

How, I wonder, is supplying weapons in Darfur, Rwanda and now Zimbabwe justified in this light? "Genocide" is listed in the categories where interference is allowed. Some might argue for that matter that annexing Tibet and destroying its culture is "colonialism".

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The saddest thing of all though about this whole debacle is the way South Africa has repositioned itself as fudging human rights in its Zimbabwe policy.

The armaments shipment was not delayed by an intervention of the government. On the contrary, there is evidence that the South African Government was facilitating it all along, offering a government-owned logistics operation when others refused to handle the shipment in a South African port. Contrast this with how the ruling African National Congress in opposition did so much to change the inviolability of "non-interference in internal affairs" by making human rights a limiting factor on what governments could do.

If the Chinese Government can see no evil, it's sad but not surprising. If the South African Government can neither see nor hear any evil - let alone speak out against evil - it's pathetic.

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This article updates an earlier version at the author's blog.



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About the Author

Philip Machanick is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Rhodes University, South Africa, and has worked at the University of Queensland, University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, and Stanford University in the USA. He has published a book, No Tomorrow, a novel with a climate change theme, and campaigns for sustainable living and rights-based government. He holds a PhD in Computer Science, and has published more than 50 academic papers. He blogs at Opinionations.

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