China’s Win-Win in Zimbabwe: Lithium for Regime Legitimacy

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The People’s Republic of China has announced a massive USD 2.79 billion investment in its lithium mining operations in Zimbabwe. Mining in the African nation will help placate Beijing’s growing hunger for critical minerals; however, as a dictatorial government, we cannot expect this financial influx to help Zimbabweans other than the country’s rulers.


China’s mining operations in Zimbabwe

China’s mining operations in Zimbabwe have significantly increased this year. Prospect Lithium Zimbabwe, part of China’s Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, opened a USD 300 million lithium processing plant in Goromonzi, about 80 kilometers southeast of Harare, the country’s capital. The plant’s opening, which took place in July, was praised by Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa. “Lithium is the mineral of the present and the future … and value addition will position our country as an emerging and competitive player in the global lithium value chain,” he said during the opening ceremony.

Moreover, Sinomine Resource Group’s local unit, Bikita Minerals, has commenced trial production at a new spodumene and petalite plant in Masvingo province. Once the Bikita Minerals lithium mine expansion project reaches maximum production capacity, it is expected to annually produce 300,000 tons of high-quality chemical-grade spodumene concentrate. The pro-government Zimbabwean newspaper The Herald reports that the lithium mine in Masvingo shows “reserves of 65 million tonnes.”

Several Chinese mining companies operate across the landlocked African nation: Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt, Sinomine Resource Group, Chengxin Lithium Group, Yahua Group, and Canmax Technologies. The companies have “have spent more than $1 billion over the past two years to acquire and develop lithium projects in Zimbabwe.”

The latest development occurred recently. On 1 November, Bloomberg reported that Chinese companies have been awarded USD 2.79 billion “of investment flow into Zimbabwe, mostly in mining and energy.” According to Harare, Zimbabwe reportedly earned USD 209 million from lithium exports in the first three quarters of 2023.

The government of Zimbabwe understands the importance of lithium and how the country can profit big. In 2022, Harare banned the export of raw lithium. There is logic for this decision: Harare not only wants lithium extracted and exported out of the country; authorities also want battery-grade lithium to be refined domestically. This strategy would mean additional infrastructure, jobs, and accelerated economic growth. Data journalist Isabeau van Halm notes that the export ban “will not apply to mining companies that already own or are constructing processing plants,” like the Chinese companies. “Keeping parts of the supply chain in Zimbabwe will mean the country will see more revenue from the extraction of its minerals,” she adds.


Beijing’s continental engagement

It is well-known that Beijing has carried an aggressive, multi-pronged foreign policy toward Africa, including organizing the famous Sino-African summits, known as the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the most recent of which took place virtually (due to COVID) in 2021. In July, Africanews published a supportive article about Sino-African cooperation titled “The China-Africa Trade Biennale bears fruitful results.” The article discussed the third China-Africa economic and trade expo in July in Changsha City, Hunan province. A total of “USD 10.3 billion worth of projects” were reportedly signed during the expo, which attracted “over 100 000 visitors and resulted in 74 cooperative projects.”

Harare has been enthusiastic about partnering with Beijing and attracting Chinese investment. Leaving aside mining, Zimbabwean companies participated in the sixth China International Import Expo (CIIE), which took place in Shanghai on 5-10 November. The companies which attended included design, leather, telecommunications, and marketing. According to the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe, bilateral trade reached USD 2.43 billion in the first nine months of this year.


Zimbabwe sinks deeper into dictatorship

Landlocked and resource-rich Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s top lithium producers. However, instead of being an economic powerhouse, the country is unfortunately more well-known for all the wrong reasons. After long-time dictator Robert Mugabe (1924-2019) was removed from power in November 2017, ending a three-decade rule that commenced in 1987, there was hope that the country would enjoy more freedom and economic development. This has not happened. President Mnangagwa (a former ally of Mugabe) came to power in 2017 via a coup d’etat and was subsequently elected president in 2018. He was re-elected in the country’s controversial 2023 elections. His party, ZANU-PF, also has a majority in the National Assembly.

Since coming to power, Mnangagwa has behaved more like a dictator than a democratic reformer. In 2022, he signed the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill 2022, also known as the Patriotic Bill, which, among others, criminalized “any citizen caught willfully injuring Zimbabwe’s sovereignty, dignity and independence as a nation” and also criminalized “those who participate in meetings with the intention to promote, advance, encourage, instigate or advocate sanctions or trade boycotts against the country.”

According to Amnesty International, throughout 2022, the right to freedom of expression in Zimbabwe was threatened by the cybercrimes law used to arrest journalists, while the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were increasingly threatened. Opposition leader Takudzwa Ngadziore has claimed that he was abducted and tortured. The re-election of Mnangagwa and the signing of the Patriotic Bill suggest that the situation will not improve in the foreseeable future. The US Department of State has “strongly condemn[ed] the intimidation and disruption of lawful election observers throughout the electoral period.”

Since Chinese lithium mining will only increase in Zimbabwe, monitoring mining practices in Chinese-owned mines will be essential. Investigations have revealed unsafe working conditions in the Chinese-run Arcadia lithium mine, where two workers died earlier this year.

There have been no reported protests by Zimbabweans against the recently announced mining projects. For comparison, Panamanians took to the streets in late October in response to a controversial contract with Canada’s First Quantum Minerals over a copper mining project. Similarly, in 2022 in Cameroon, hundreds of civilians protested in Lolabe, a coastal village by the Atlantic Ocean, against a new contract with the Chinese company Sinosteel Cam S.A. over iron ore. Protests could also break out in the future in Zimbabwe if deadly mining accidents continue or if pollution and environmental destruction caused by these new lithium projects increase. Unfortunately, President Mnangagwa’s policies and previous deployments of police and troops to crack down on protests suggest that if uprisings over mining issues occur, they will also be met with violent crackdowns.

Ironically, one thing that Zimbabwe is not is a polluting country. Overall, Africa contributes 2%-3% of the global greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change. Zimbabwe contributes less than 0.1%. In 2021, Zimbabwe committed to reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions by 40% in 2030. Researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York, have published an academic essay entitled “Climate change mitigation in Zimbabwe and links to sustainable development” in the Environmental Development journal. The report argues that this target can be achieved by implementing 28 specific policies and measures.



Zimbabwe’s Mines and Mining Development Minister Zhemu Soda has praised the country’s lithium reserves and potential: “our country can boost its revenue generation by investing in the exploration and discovery of new battery mineral deposits that can be extracted and sold to global markets.” And by “global markets,” the minister undoubtedly meant China. There are undeniable financial reasons in favor of trading with a massive market like China, as the Asian powerhouse’s hunger for resources, including critical minerals, can lead to very profitable deals. As a country with severe poverty, including food poverty, Zimbabwe needs all the financial income it can get.

However, there are obvious concerns about the country becoming too dependent on China. Moreover, the ongoing mineral projects and new announcements for investment also give legitimacy to President Mnangagwa’s administration. Sadly, ample evidence demonstrates that he behaves in a Mugabe-esque manner.

China’s strategy of befriending dictators continues to pay off as Beijing obtains access to critical minerals and other resources its population, industries, and economy require. Meanwhile, President Mnangagwa is strengthening his partnership with a vital investor and trade partner. While Zimbabweans get paid to work in Chinese-owned lithium mines, and there is certainly profit to be made by dealing with Chinese companies and entering the massive Chinese market, ultimately, the Beijing-Harare partnership is helping Zimbabwe’s (new) dictator remain in power.


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