Two Zimbabwean workers at a gold mine on the outskirts of Gweru in central Zimbabwe were shot by their Chinese boss on Sunday, June 21. The incident has rekindled long-standing tensions about Chinese nationals living in the southern African country.
A court affidavit submitted by the Zimbabwean police alleges that Zhang Xuelin shot Kenneth Tachiona five times, reportedly in both thighs, and another employee, Wendy Chikwaira, had his chin grazed by a bullet. Workers at Reden Mine in Gweru had confronted Xuelin over his alleged failure to pay their wages in US dollars, as had been agreed previously, according to the affidavit. US dollars are highly sought-after in Zimbabwe, which has experienced repeated cash shortages and inflation spikes since its currency was effectively abandoned in 2009.
The Gweru case brings to mind a 2010 shooting in neighboring Zambia. Two Chinese mine managers were charged with the attempted murder of eleven workers at the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mine in Sinazongwe after a protest over pay and conditions became heated. Despite being a decade apart, the two cases demonstrate an ongoing pattern of African workers feeling disgruntled by the systemic imbalance of their relationship with Chinese interests.
The number of Chinese nationals in Africa has increased over the past two decades. At least 10,000 Chinese nationals now live and work in Zimbabwe, according to the Brookings Institute. The population in Zambia is significantly higher. Many of these migrants are employed as contractors for Chinese companies delivering extensive infrastructure, construction, manufacturing, and mining projects. This model of investment frustrates African executives, commentators, and workers, who argue that it deprives locals of employment and training opportunities. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Chinese firms employ, pay, and train Africans at similar rates as non-Chinese companies.
That sentiment reflects more deep-seated misgivings about the equity of large deals that African governments sign with Chinese companies. These include loans, construction projects, and extraction rights for natural resources. For example, in April 2019, Chinese firm Tsingshan committed to investing US$2 billion to mine chrome, iron ore, nickel, and coal in Zimbabwe, cementing China’s place as the country’s largest foreign investor. At the same time, Shanghai Construction Group is constructing a new US$140 million six-story parliament building, apparently a donation from the Chinese government. But many Zimbabweans are skeptical of such gestures. Few regard it as unadulterated altruism. And the lack of transparency fuels speculation.
China’s extensive leverage in Zimbabwe, and elsewhere, does not look like the postcolonial partnership promised in the 1970s. Indeed, the legacy of racist settler colonialism provides an alarming comparison for Zimbabweans when they hear stories of managers shooting employees or, as happened in Zambia recently, Chinese vendors denying service to black customers.
This is a particularly sensitive time for Sino-African relations. In April, reports of African migrants in Guangzhou, home to China’s largest African community, being targeted for forced testing and quarantine, evicted from their accommodation, and denied hospitality went viral and sparked outrage on social media. Human Rights Watch accused Guangdong authorities of “textbook” discrimination. Many feel that it is one rule for the Chinese in Africa and quite another for Africans in China.
The COVID-19 crisis has also elevated concerns about debt, at a time when economic paralysis is hampering governments’ ability to maintain payments. About 20 percent of African government external debt is owed to China. According to reports, China has offered relief from interest-free loans, but these loans make up less than 5 percent of its total lending.
In a recent interview, former Zimbabwean minister Gordon Moyo, now director of the country’s Public Policy and Research Institute, described China’s lending as “illegitimate” and said the East Asian country was at risk of being “a new imperialist.”
Having been shot repeatedly in both legs, Kenneth Tachiona faces the prospect of being disabled for the rest of his life. But with a wife and five children, his concerns are very pragmatic. In an interview with VOA, he said: “Of course I want the law to take its course, but I’m now disabled, and for me, the most important thing is to be compensated adequately.” Money being his most pressing concern reflects the same hard realities facing his government.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has emphasized the importance of impartial justice in this case. Likewise, the Chinese embassy declared its respect for Zimbabwe’s right to handle the situation “in accordance with the law.” At the same time, however, they asked to see Zimbabwe “protect the safety as well as legitimate rights and interests” of Chinese nationals in the country. President Mnangagwa echoed the sentiment and did not accept the view that the shooting was reflective of “systemic and widespread” abuse by Chinese employers, as some prominent civil society groups have claimed.
With mounting debt, a health crisis, and uncertain support from the West, there is little prospect of Zimbabwe—or any of its neighbors—untangling itself from Chinese interests.
Jesse Samasuwo is a London-based analyst writing and researching international affairs, primarily focused on energy, trade, and politics.