Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. File picture: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

Chinese President Xi Jinping will be Zimbabwe’s most important visitor since independence when he touches down in Harare today.

It is Xi’s first state visit to Zimbabwe and comes when President Robert Mugabe desperately needs financial assistance to rebuild neglected infrastructure, such as power and roads.

The latest Sunday Mail headlined the visit, “From China with love”, not least because the two countries have a long and close relationship which predates independence, as China supported Mugabe during the 1970s liberation war.

But many economists note that despite the close relationship, China has not provided much direct financial support to the cash-strapped government, which is desperately trying to rejoin the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

China is Zimbabwe’s fourth largest trading partner, but the economy continues to shrink with industry operating at only 34 percent – and slipping – according to recent statistics from the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries.

So Zimbabweans are anxious to know how China will implement the so-called “mega deals” signed as MOUs during Mugabe’s state visit to Beijing 16 months ago.

The deals were never spelt out while Mugabe was in China, but state journalists speculated and suggested that the Chinese would invest in coal mining, thermal power, cement and infrastructure.

At present the main Chinese project is a commercial deal with the Sino-Hydro Corporation, which will increase power generation at the Kariba hydro-electric plant, a project which nearly doubled in cost since it was first negotiated five years ago and which may be completed in three years.

A Chinese company, China Jiangsu, funded by China Exim Bank, won the R2.4 billion contract to extend and rebuild the Victoria Falls airport, including a new runway which can operate at night, and which will be able to accommodate wide-bodied aircraft for double the number of passengers.

The upgrade of the airport should be open before year-end. A deal which the state press speculates may be cemented during Xi’s visit would be expansion of the elderly and sometimes unreliable Hwange Power Station which provides about half of Zimbabwe’s electricity.

Zimbabwe is experiencing its worst power crisis yet as drought has affected the water level at Lake Kariba and the Zambezi River Authority has cut water to the turbines as it gets ever closer to falling below the minimum. At present the water is about 1m above the turbines. Zambia has also been hard hit by reduction in power from Kariba.

Most remaining industries, mining companies, farmers and households are without power for about 18 hours in each 24-hour period.

Leading economist and academic from the University of Zimbabwe, Tony Hawkins, said he did not know which deals could or would be concluded during the Chinese leader’s visit: “There have been so many reports of so many large deals in the last few years and it is not clear what is ‘mega’ and what is not.”

He said the so-called “mega” deals were not only with China. There was also the largest yet investment from India’s Essar (Africa Holdings), which collapsed recently, and the Russians were supposedly involved in a “mega” platinum project. “It is very difficult to see any progress on any of the deals except at Kariba South, and the cost of that went up hugely in the last few years.”

But the optimistic state press says: “Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit will quicken the implementation of the mega deals.” It quotes Huang Ping, China’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, who said Xi’s visit would see agreements signed.

“The two presidents will witness the signing of a series of new bilateral co-operation agreements, which are mega deals in areas of infrastructure construction, investment and financing, culture, wildlife protection, and will further enrich and bring new momentum to our practical co-operation.

“Most of the deals will be agreements rather than MOUs and you will see quick implementation after the visit. I am confident that this visit will bring our all-weather friendship to a new high.”

He said nothing was hindering the implementation of the “mega” deals. “Zimbabwe is the fourth country in Africa that President Xi has visited since taking office, and one of the two African countries President Xi is visiting this year,” he said. “China takes the deals it has signed very seriously, and always does what it can to ensure that the agreements follow through. That is why President Xi chose Zimbabwe.”

Mugabe and his wife Grace left for Paris last Thursday and are in the French capital for the UN’s climate conference. They must be back in Harare for Xi’s arrival.

The Chinese president arrives in South Africa from Zimbabwe tomorrow.

INDEPENDENT FOREIGN SERVICE

CAPE TIMES