Behind the reluctance of China and Africa to criticize Mugabe
SHANGHAI: For a crisis involving African despotism, the decibel readings in the West over Zimbabwe have reached almost unprecedented levels.
Beyond the din of condemnations of Robert Mugabe, that country's aging, power-obsessed tyrant, however, a great many questions have gone unexamined.
Western governments led by London and Washington look at Mugabe's rule and see such a clear-cut case of evil that they are at a loss to understand why the rest of Africa - or China, for that matter, a Security Council member with fast-deepening ties with the continent - doesn't rush to join in on their condemnation.
The Zimbabwe case should be more, though, than a tragedy for its own people, for it presents an invaluable opportunity to think about how differently the world can look from different vantage points. And far from an idle thought exercise, this might helpfully lead to a rethinking of diplomatic strategy in Africa and in other parts of the world.
As the second most important country in southern Africa, Zimbabwe, like that region itself, has long functioned like a kaleidoscope, serving up dramatically different perspectives to different viewers.
I was reminded of this fact by the recent news that a South African citizen of Chinese ancestry, Patrick Chong, had won a lawsuit enabling him to be legally considered black. The outcome was a triumph over a history of double discrimination. Like other ethnic Chinese, the plaintiff, who is chairman of the Chinese Association of South Africa, was denied many basic rights during the apartheid era, and he had also been denied the compensation won by the country's black majority with the demise of a system of legally enshrined racism.
As the perverse language of apartheid would have put it, Chong has now become an "honorary black."
What does this all have to do with Zimbabwe? Before Zimbabwe became a majority-ruled, independent country in 1980, and during the long years of apartheid in South Africa, both of those countries were treated with similar perversity as honorary members of the West.
While China was building the Tazara Railroad, to connect Zambia's mines to Tanzania's ports in order to loosen white-ruled South Africa's economic grip on the southern half of the continent, the United States and Britain were running diplomatic interference for apartheid rule in Pretoria.
Washington often went further, backing South African guerrilla proxies in places like Angola, prolonging devastating wars there and elsewhere, and staving off independence for South African-occupied Namibia in the name of fighting communism.
Short memories abound, but in Africa this is not yet ancient history. In 1987, while South Africa was actively pursuing a policy of sabotage against its neighbors, devastating vital infrastructure and supporting mass killers like the Renamo rebels in Mozambique, Washington reserved most of its indignation for "necklacing," a small-bore terror tactic practiced by blacks in South Africa. An amendment passed with overwhelming support in the U.S. Senate requiring southern African countries to condemn these lynchings or lose American aid.
Mugabe said it himself when he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1987: "Political and material support of desperate bandit groups, dissidents and self-seeking, discredited individuals by a superpower like the United States is a prescription for chaos and instability in the international political system. Calling such a hodgepodge of individuals 'freedom fighters' does not make them any such thing."
Looking back, it isn't hard to conclude that China was in many ways closer to being on the right side of history in southern Africa than the United States, for all of America's vaunted attachment to freedom, democracy and human rights.
It is anything but clear that China has maintained that position today, as it pursues neo-mercantilist policies and abstains from pressuring Mugabe to end the campaign of terror and economic devastation waged against his own people.
Still, if one pauses to consider, it is relatively easy to grasp why African leaders might question the good faith behind the West's admirable sounding values and abstain from the chorus of condemnations, or why the Chinese might themselves be skeptical.
An African journalist wrote me this week, comparing the vociferous Western response to Mugabe to the customary silence that attends atrocities, political hijackings and despotism on the continent, especially where critical Western interests are in play. A former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe had told her: "Everyone felt they had invested something in the success of Zimbabwe, so when it all began unraveling, everyone felt personally disappointed and let down."
This looks too easy by half, and it is hard to avoid the heretical question whether the vociferous response, especially by Britain, isn't somehow related to race?
Unlike most of the continent, Rhodesia, like South Africa and Kenya, were places where whites settled and became attached.
Ivory Coast, another erstwhile showcase, was allowed to cycle through stolen elections, coups, ethnic cleansing and civil war, registering scarcely a ripple on the global agenda.
But telling Africans they will be judged by how they line up on Zimbabwe is counterproductive for other reasons, too. The West's constant search for African leaders to anoint or vilify is resented on the continent, and its track record, moreover, is riddled with spots.
Paranoid African dictators look at the calls to denounce Mugabe and worry they might be next. The more democratically inclined know better. They see Washington's embrace of dictators in places like Equatorial Guinea, or even former enemies, like the robber baron former Marxists who run Angola, and see a pattern of highly selective outrage. Might the fact that these countries - to name but two - are swimming in oil have something to do with escaping the Mugabe treatment?
China looks at this inconsistency, too, and naturally suspects it is being discriminated against. The only African country that has drawn more Western critical fire than Zimbabwe recently is Sudan, for its genocidal campaign in Darfur. It's an emerging oil power, too, but unlike so many African kleptocracies, its product flows east, not west.