The men who plotted the overthrow of Zimbabwe’s long-serving President Robert Mugabe asked China for permission first, according to The Times of London.
The Times reported Tuesday that one of the coup leaders, General Constantine Chiwenga, had met China’s defense minister Chang Wanquan in Beijing last Friday, in what it styled as a sounding out of the country that has kept Zimbabwe’s economy afloat in recent years.
It is a stark illustration of how China’s huge expansion of overseas investment and trade is translating into hard power, especially in a continent that was previously the playground of Cold War superpowers and, before them, European colonial powers such as Britain and France.
According to the BBC, Chiwenga and other army leaders placed the 93-year-old president under house arrest Tuesday, while allowing Mugabe’s wife Grace, who had been jockeying to take over from her husband, free passage out of the country. Reuters reported that Mugabe is still resisting pressure to resign.
Chinese loans to Zimbabwe have helped stabilize the country in recent years after Mugabe’s disastrous economic policies led to a devastating bout of hyperinflation. The African country now uses the dollar as its currency, but the dollars effectively come not from the U.S., but from China’s $3 trillion stash of foreign reserves. Beijing pledged $4 billion in investment, aid, and loans last year alone, and Reuters quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang as saying Thursday that “China’s friendly policy towards Zimbabwe won’t change.”
Zimbabwe’s gross domestic product shrunk for 10 years in a row until Chinese money helped a rebound that started in 2009. But growth has slowed again in recent years, from over 13% in 2013 to only 0.7% last year and 2.8% this year, according to IMF estimates.
The Times reported that Beijing had been willing to approve the coup because it had “grown worried about the levels of corruption inside the ruling party.”
However, it noted that it wasn’t just Beijing that the coup leaders had lobbied. The newspaper said they had also sounded out neighboring South Africa, the African Union, and the European Union.