By Njabulo Ncube
ZHING ZHONG is a derogatory term is a creation of Zimbabwe’s journalists and has widely been used in the past three or so years to describe the seemingly cheap Chinese products that flooded the southern African nation as President Robert Mugabe embarked on his Look East Policy.
The media in Zimbabwe has had no qualms about ridiculing anything Chinese due to Beijing’s forays into Harare and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) nations as it seeks to expand its economic and political influence in Africa.
Mugabe’s Look East Policy followed restrictive travel and economic sanctions slapped on him and his inner circle by the West in 2001 over alleged electoral fraud and human rights violations against perceived opponents, particularly the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by former premier Morgan Tsvangirai.
But his courting of Chinese investment had been perceived by the opposition and some sections of the media as ‘selling the country to the Chinese’. They accuse the Zanu (PF) strongman of making Zimbabwe a dumping ground for “textile and electronic products found in Harare’s streets and shops.
The phrase zhing zhong became part of the journalism lexicon as perceptions about China’s expansion and investment in Zimbabwe grew amid numerous business and political delegation visits to Harare.
Some sections of the media went to the extent of casting aspersions about Chinese nationals doing business in Harare, much to the delight of their readers or listenership.
Many a Chinese businessman and woman were largely stereotyped as seedy with a penchant for wanting to make a quick buck which they swiftly shipped back to Beijing. Not that these Chinese businesspeople were all saints, a number reportedly flagrantly flouted labour regulations such as subjecting their workers to work under extreme conditions without safety shoes and paying them slave wages, but they were all painted with the same brush i.e. cheap.
In most cases such transgressions were seized upon by the media as apt examples to illustrate why zhing zhong, referring to Chinese products, were unwelcome in Zimbabwe despite Mugabe’s warming up to the Chinese political leadership, referring to them “as Zimbabwe’s all-weather friend.”
But less than three years down the line, the media, particularly the private media which Mugabe’s administration claims is hostile to his party Zanu PF and its policies, appears to have changed tact in its reportage of China and its dealings with the southern African nation.
With China continuing to pour funds into Zimbabwe’s comatose economy in the past three years, the term has apparently disappeared from the pages of the mainstream media while Chinese news content from Beijing has produced stereotypical articles about local Chinese businesspeople.
The Chinese businessmen and women are now being held in the same high esteem as their European counterparts, something which was unheard off about three years ago.
“We have banned the word zhing zhong,” a group editor-in-chief of one of Zimbabwe’s leading private media houses told this reporter in an interview. “This is hate language and creates wrong perceptions about a country which is pouring millions of investment into the country,” he said, asking that his identify be protected.
Chinese investment in Zimbabwe has risen by more than 5 000% in the past five years, according to statistics gleaned from the Chinese Embassy in Harare.
The statistics show that Zimbabwe is among Africa’s highest recipients of foreign direct investment (FDI) from China. For instance, annual FDI from China increased from $11.2 million in 2009 to $602 million in 2013 as Chinese investors largely focused on mining, agriculture and manufacturing. Cumulatively, Chinese companies invested $1.3 billion over the five years to 2013.
But some observers attribute the marked change in reportage to a number of media seminars and exchange programmes China has been extending to local journalists, artists and other influential socialites. Apart from media seminars between Harare and Beijing, China Corporation television has an exchange programme with Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation in which they share news content and documentaries.
Both the print and broadcast media, which source machinery and cheap news print from Beijing, has been quick recently to unquestionably support and defend Chinese policies and projects while Mugabe’s government views the second biggest economy in the world as the panacea to Harare’s economic meltdown.
For instance as public debate ensued over the teaching of Mandarin in Zimbabwean schools after it was first proposed in August 2015 by a government minister, the media has been tame in its criticism of the introduction of the language in primary schools.
Analysts attribute the latest shift in reportage to the sponsored tours by local journalists to Beijing courtesy of the exchange programmes which allowed them to experience Chinese culture and political life, coupled with China’s estimated $1.3 billion investments in Zimbabwe.
Ranga Mataire, a senior journalist with the state-run daily newspaper The Herald, captured the general mood in the media regarding the teaching of mandarin.
“Chinese is not only the language spoken by the largest population but it is the language of the fastest growing and second largest economy in the world. Europe, Asia and United States have the largest number of Confucius Institutes and Western Australia teaches Mandarin from kindergarten while 27 states in the US have a similar policy. So what is the fuss about Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya introducing Chinese in schools?” said Mataire.
Unlike three or five years ago, Chinese delegation visits are religiously followed by Zimbabwean journalists and their media houses, in a clear shift from the previous reportage, with most of the tours receiving front-page coverage and prime time viewing.
Jonathan Gandari, a former journalism lecturer and media consultant who trained in China, believes the change in Zimbabwean public perceptions has been due to a number of strategies.
Gandari argues that between 2008-2010 when the Zimbabwean economy nosedived, the flooding of the Zimbabwe market with cheap Chinese goods “warmed” up some hearts as it created a sense of being “rescued” among some Zimbabweans.
Secondly, he says scholarships have helped thaw relations and improve perceptions about the emerging economic giant, adding that Zimbabwean universities teaching the Chinese language and Zimbabweans studying in China, as well as exchange programmes were on the uptake between 2008 and 2010.
Thirdly, notes Gandari, labour relations have been improving for Chinese firms operating in Zimbabwe in the mining, agriculture, construction industries. Previously Chinese firms were caricatured in the media as the worst employers.
But Chinese employers are now regarded as equal opportunity employers similar to their European counterparts in a country where unemployment hovers over 90%.
“The Look East Policy which meant using all platforms available to play megaphone diplomacy by Zimbabwean government is a strategy that has worked,” said Gandari.
“But the loans and gifts to Zimbabwe’s political leadership and the country have also been the icing on the cake. So because of all these strategies the public media in particular took the central role of ‘sweetening’ all these activities and making sure they created enough energy and media hype and manufactured media ‘spectacles’. The private media were the invited guests at press conferences and could choose what to agree or disagree with. With all the above strategies the image of China has improved. I know that Chinese engineers have conducted training at Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation Television (ZBC-TV). I also know that top ZBC-TV executives have gone to China on month long exchange visits,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s deputy minister of information Monica Mutsvangwa, the wife of a former Zimbabwe ambassador to China, says Zimbabwe’s media has a lot to learn from China.
Fresh from a ministerial workshop in China, Mutsvangwa said Zimbabwe must retain ownership of all information channels to control and promote progressive messages that foster development.
“You can’t control the information if you don’t retain ownership of information channels,” she said. But this has solicited opposition from some media activists.
Mugabe has himself undertaken several reciprocal state visits to China. In August last year he led a huge government and business delegation to Beijing in which he reportedly signed several mega-deals, which ranged from infrastructure investment pacts to a greater number of memorandums of understanding.
The reception to these deals has been dual in tone with the state media generally lauding these deals not only by describing them as major, but also referring to them as historic; while the private media has urged caution and also sought to emphasise the point of how the country may now be beholden to the Chinese by mortgaging the meagre mineral resources we have.
But both the public and private media agree Zimbabwe needs China more due to Mugabe’s isolation by the West.
Harare-based media and political analyst, Takura Zhangazha, argues that whether Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) celebrates or the opposition castigates the deals, the truth is that Zimbabwe has to engage and court Chinese investment, and the media is very aware of this.
“What we must accept as Zimbabweans is that China is here to stay, primarily because of its long history of direct support to our liberation struggles but also in search, as is the case elsewhere on the continent, for natural resources and new markets for its booming economy,” he said.
However, Zhangazha is quick to note that the problem that has always emerged with these sorts of deals in Zimbabwe is the ineptitude of the Zimbabwean government to implement them according to specific development plans and not allowing them to become part of the country’s generally corrupt culture around state tenders, mining concessions, infrastructure development and elite aggrandisement via the state.
“Add to this that the utilisation of such investment deals to distribute political patronage has led to failure before launch of most of these investment packages or loans,” he said.