Zimbabwe’s Chinese Community: Challenges and Opportunities

Zimbabwe, a country that is endowed with abundant mineral resources, has been a recipient of huge Chinese investment. There are approximately 6,000 Chinese who work and live in Zimbabwe, with the majority engaged in trade-related industries, such as extractive, manufacturing and retail industries. In 2008, Zimbabwe suddenly became famous for its catastrophic hyperinflation. Nearly a decade afterward, in December 2017, former president Robert Mugabe was forced to resign. This landlocked country is currently undergoing a period of political and economic transition, but concomitantly, opportunities are flourishing. Innumerable Chinese seek business opportunities in Zimbabwe, yet face issues and concerns relating to ethnic and cultural conflicts and the current economic condition.

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Harare, Zimbabwe

Globally, Zimbabwe is a significant producer of lithium, chrysotile asbestos, and vermiculite. As the third largest ferrochromium-rich country worldwide and second largest coal producer in Africa, Zimbabwe holds 930 million tons of ferrochromium, comprising 8.75 percent of the world’s total. Since resources like ferrochromium and nickel are rare in China, but significant for technological development, China is in urgent need of mineral resources. Thus, collaboration will be hugely complementary when the economy of Zimbabwe is fully recovered. China has been the largest foreign investor in and the fourth biggest trading partner with Zimbabwe. With a stake of approximately 67 percent, Sinosteel Corporation, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, is the biggest shareholder of Zimasco, the only manufacturing enterprise producer of ferrochromium in Zimbabwe.

Besides this, the ideal environment in Zimbabwe is another attraction. It is eminently livable and relatively safer than other African countries, Angola, for instance. According to Professor Bo Wu, Chinese Director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe, teachers at Confucius Institute who have come to Zimbabwe for a one-year internship are contemplating staying longer.

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The author interviewing Professor Wu

Meanwhile, the challenges that were brought up by the unprecedented economic crisis should not be overlooked. The Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Bill, which promised that “over 51 percent of all the businesses in the country will be transferred into local African hands,” was passed by Mugabe’s party in March 2008, has led to the collapse of its economy. During that period, like every foreigner living in the country, Chinese businessmen were frightened, yet many decided not to leave. “Zimbabwe has become our second home, our businesses are all here. We had to stay, even though it was the toughest time,” Mr. Wang, chairman of Peaceful Reunification Association recalled.

Following the 2008 hyperinflation crisis,, the Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned. Since then, the American dollar has become Zimbabwe’s main currency. But due to the country’s small economic size and the increase of the US dollar interest rate, Zimbabwe’s economy continued to shrink. A negative feedback loop formed. The shortage of the US dollar led the country to limit its trade to  necessities, such as electricity and oil.Therefore, in order to do business with incoming investors, innumerable companies had to exchange money in the black market at a much higher rate. “Six out of seven Chinese mining enterprises here were forced to shut down that year, our company was the only survivor. The condition for us was extremely difficult,” said Mrs. Luo, the manager of Almid Private Limited, “The only one barely, barely made it to survive. Many Chinese employees went back to China because their companies were closed down and couldn’t afford paying their labor force.”

Mr. Dai, a member of Zimbabwe Chinese Business Association (ZCBA), said, “All the Chinese investors that survived the 2008 crash are now millionaires.” After the political transition, the future of the Zimbabwean market became much brighter and more stable. President Mnangagwa, who has led the country since December 2017, is now devoting himself to resolving this situation. The abrogation of the Indigenisation Act was the first action he took since coming into power, which implies the new leader of the country has shown great determination to reopen its gates to foreign investors. China was the destination of President Mnangagwa’s first state visit outside of Africa since taking over from Robert Mugabe. According to Xinhua News Agency, President Mnangagwa promises a closer relationship with China that provides for greater collaboration and more opportunities for Chinese investors. “We must have deeper economic relations with China. We know the road that we need to follow to grow our economy,” he said.

“Once they decided to open up the markets for foreigners, especially Chinese in our own case, the future ahead for us became optimistic,” said Mr. Li, chairman of ZCBA. Since President Mnangagwa launched its new investment law, the “Zimbabwe is open for business” policy, similar to China’s reforms and opening-up policy back in the late 1970s,  more and more businessmen from China will likely come to Zimbabwe seeking investment opportunities. “The future is exciting and predictable,” Mr. Li proclaimed. “The population of Chinese in Zimbabwe will constantly increase by approximately 5,000 people annually.”

Another difficulty experienced by Chinese businesses is the cultural and ethnic differences that have constantly led to miscommunication. “Zimbabwe is a country that has an ancient civilization. Without knowing its encounters with politics and history, how can we truly get involved and collaborate well with the locals?” Xu He, a foreign correspondent who spent seven years in Zimbabwe, concluded. He pointed out that most Chinese who are living in Zimbabwe as foreigners do not have a sufficient understanding of local culture overall. “This misunderstanding came from both sides,” he added. The Chinese have been on this continent for very few decades, there wasn’t enough time given for us to soak in. We still have a long way to go.”

Frequently, minor conflicts can have far-reaching impacts for the Chinese community. The obstacle that Mr. Li was confronting is the dissimilar work attitudes between Chinese and locals. “Once there is an investing opportunity, Chinese businessmen wouldn’t hesitate at all, no matter if we were still on holiday. But our local co-workers were completely different. Every time that I tried to reach out to our local teammates during the weekend for business, they never picked up the phone. Then I started to realize that they usually use two phones. The one for work is usually turned off during the weekend to make sure their leisure time will not be disturbed. This is the mindset that we should learn, to separate work from private life.”

Nowadays, an increasing number of people are aware of the importance of enhancing mutual understanding. The top reason for misunderstanding is the lack of communication. Language is a big part of this. Many Chinese came to Zimbabwe without knowing how to speak English, and Zimbabweans are not capable of understanding Mandarin. Therefore, this gap allows misinterpretation to grow.

In 2007, a Confucius Institute was established in the University of Zimbabwe in order to enhance Sino-Zimbabwe connections. With over 2,000 students having already graduated from the institute, it has grown tremendously and is making itself one of the leading centers of excellence on the African continent. “Since there are more and more Chinese coming into Zimbabwe, local students have gained awareness of how helpful learning Mandarin can be,” said Professor Wu. “Now we have approximately 300 students in University of Zimbabwe that are enrolled in Mandarin classes, some of them are even choosing Mandarin as their major.” By promoting the understanding of Chinese language and culture, stronger Sino-Zimbabwe ties are built. Excellent students are given the chance of attending Chinese universities, with scholarships provided. Every year, ZCBA provides flight tickets fee for 20 exchange students. “Usually we send 20-40 students to China annually. But we can certainly see that this need is constantly growing,” Professor Wu said proudly. Students, after coming back and graduating from college, will be given opportunities to become teachers at Confucius Institutes since they have a deeper connection with local students; or they can choose to be a translator between Chinese and local laborers, which is largely demanded and better remunerated.

The Chinese younger generation is putting efforts into reducing ambiguity as well. Ye Huang and Yitong Tang, two of the crew members from China House, were trying to connect with Newsday, a local publisher, to spread the ideas of wildlife conservation. Before they met up with the staff, members from the Chinese community were giving them suggestions, and even tried to persuade them not to meet local media because they were afraid of showing the vulnerabilities, and possibly, further deepen the misunderstanding and confusion about Chinese people’s role in wildlife trade. Yet eventually, they still chose to meet with the crews of Newsday and tried to eliminate misinterpretation. Astonishingly, the result was marvelous. They had a pleasant conversation and the report after all was positive and objective. These young people have shown to others what to do to minimize the gap of misinterpretation between Chinese and local Zimbabweans. Therefore, besides learning languages, taking initiative and sharing ideas is another important approach to resolve the challenges brought on by cultural conflicts.

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Coverage of Chinese volunteer participants in the wildlife conservation awareness campaign

“Zimbabwe is just like durian, it doesn’t smell good whilst it is tasty. Without living here, you could not comprehend the beauty of the city,” said Professor Wu. “Zimbabwe is a country with enormous potential.” Even though many facets of Zimbabwean society are still challenging for the Chinese community, there will still be ample opportunities ahead for them.

By Ziyuan Lin, China House Fellow

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