In that context, Chiwenga’s visit to China has come under scrutiny, with speculation that he had sought Beijing’s tacit approval for a possible move against Mugabe.
China’s involvement in Zimbabwe stretches back to the 1970s, when Beijing covertly supplied ammunition and financing to Mugabe’s guerrilla forces during the country’s war of independence. In the intervening years, China has continued to provide financial and political support to the African nation, investing extensively across a range of sectors and helping to develop key infrastructure projects.
“Since Mugabe took power he has been consistently supported by the Chinese government. China has become the second largest trading partner with Zimbabwe and has invested very largely in the country,” said Wang Xinsong, associate professor at Beijing Normal University School of Social Development and Public Policy. China would be very reluctant to see Zimbabwe fall into a period of social instability and political turmoil, he added.
But most observers say there is no way to know how involved China was in the apparent coup, or whether it received advanced warning. Cobus Van Staden, senior researcher on Foreign Policy at the South African Institute of International Affairs, described the possibility as a “billion dollar question.”
“The fact there were these kind of visits to Beijing right before (the coup) certainly seems indicative of something, but who knows what that was?”
During Chiwenga’s trip to China, he met with Central Military Commission member Gen. Li Zuocheng, according to a Chinese military press release, who told him Zimbabwe and China were “all-weather friends.”
He also met with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan on November 10 in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a press briefing on Thursday the visit was just a “normal military-to-military exchange” which had been planned in advance. “Since the defense ministry hosted him, I don’t have other details,” he said.
‘China will never forget its old friend’
But it is 93-year-old Mugabe, now under house arrest, who has benefited most from China’s unwavering support.
As Mugabe’s relationship with the West began to deteriorate into the later part of the 1990s, he increasingly looked to his old ally China for economic and political assistance.
“China is very loyal in this kind of way, they tend to stand by these long-time allies and every time someone like Mugabe would go to Beijing they’d roll out the red carpet,” said Van Staden.
“Chinese investment in Zimbabwe has also fallen victim to Mugabe’s policy and some projects were forced to close down or move to other countries in recent years, bringing huge losses,” said Wang. “Bilateral cooperation did not realize its potential under Mugabe’s rule.”
In the opinion piece, Wang said a change of government could be beneficial to China Zimbabwe relations. “Friendly ties will embrace new development opportunities,” he said.
‘Distant but friendly country’
Official Chinese channels are being more circumspect though, not picking one side over the other.
In a statement released after the apparent coup was under way, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said China was “playing close attention” to the situation.
“We sincerely hope that the situation will remain stable in Zimbabwe and relevant affairs can be handled in a peaceful and proper way,” the statement read.
“We will continue to develop friendly cooperation with Zimbabwe following the principle of equal and mutually beneficial cooperation with win-win results.”
“China has played a positive and constructive role in Africa. The long-term friendship between China and Zimbabwe will transcend the internal disturbances in Zimbabwe,” the editorial said.
“The Chinese public would like to see peace in that distant but friendly country.”