Engaged in a bitter slugfest with the US on economic, technological and strategic fronts, China is taking its fight with the US in the third country, especially Zimbabwe where the alleged expose by the African country’s largest daily newspaper ‘The Herald’ is being used by Beijing to badger the US left, right and centre.
In its report published on September 21, The Herald has maintained that the US is funding and training local reporters to write anti-China stories.
“The United States is sponsoring a strategy to undermine Chinese investment in Zimbabwe by smearing the Asian giant’s companies as engaging in widespread labour malpractices, as well as violation of human, community and environmental rights among other ills,” the Zimbabwean daily reported.
Considered as the largest read newspaper in the landlocked Southern African nation, The Herald also included Western countries in its sensational report.
“The strategy is part of an intricate plan, also involving some European and Nordic countries, to discredit Chinese businesses through disinformation, lies and sensationalism in the independent media and social platform,” The Herald report said.
Surprisingly, the Zimbabwean daily used a cartoon of CGTN (China Global Television Network) as a lead photograph for its story: ‘US plan to discredit Chinese investments unmasked.’ While it impacted the credibility of the story, for almost three weeks since the publication of the alleged expose by The Herald, China remained silent on the issue. On October 14, all state-backed news outlets of China from CGTN to Global Times to Xinhua to China Daily and others came out with the Zimbabwean daily’s story.
A day after Chinese media coverage of the said story, the East Asian country’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian, during a regular press briefing, said: “The US government chose to hire paid posters to spread rumours with the money, which is vile as media outlets put it. For some time, the US has gone to great lengths, including paying for lies, to discredit China and hurt China- Africa relations.”
There seemed to be a pattern in the Chinese attempt to play up the issue and Beijing apparently did to show the US and the West, whose media outlets have over the years come out with stories of Chinese firms’ exploitation of workers and the poor in Zimbabwe, in the bad light.
The Guardian, the well-known British daily, had exposed abuses of local workers hired by the Chinese companies for working in mines and construction businesses in Zimbabwe as far as nine years ago. In the story published on January 2, 2012, the British daily came out with a headline “Workers claim abuse as China adds Zimbabwe to its scramble for Africa.”
The British daily presented a heart wrenching story of Zimbabwean workers who were made to slog 14-hour a day for seven day on a paltry sum of $4 a day and beaten mercilessly, sometime after undressing them with helmets, for a simple mistake during their work at Zimbabwe National Defence College.
Funded by China, the Defence College was being built by the Chinese construction company, Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company (AFECC).
“The shadowy military academy is being built by a Chinese contractor whose managers are accused of meting out physical punishments, miserable conditions and meagre pay,” The Guardian said in its report nine-year ago.
The trend continued with Western media digging out one after another story of Zimbabwean workers’ mistreatment. CNN, the prominent US television channel, had widely covered the shooting of the two Zimbabwean workers by a Chinese firm manager, Zhang Xuen on June 29, 2020. Showing the “systematic and widespread” abuse that locals face in Chinese mining operations, “Zhang Xuen shot an employee five times and wounded another at the mine he ran in Gweru province in central Zimbabwe during a row with workers over outstanding pay,” CNN reported last year.
Under US sanctions since 2003, Zimbabwe is heavily leaned towards China politically, militarily and economically. China is Zimbabwe’s fourth largest trading partner and its largest source of investment with stakes worth billions of US dollar in everything from agriculture to construction. Result is, China wields such a strong clout on Zimbabwe that despite numerous cases of abuses of local labourers by Chinese employers, the Zimbabwe government doesn’t take action against them.
This year in September, the National Union of Metal and Allied Industries of Zimbabwe, which is affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union, took out a protest rally against Chinese-owned Afrochine Smelting Pvt Ltd in Harare for unfair termination of contracts for 33 workers, non-payment of wages and beating up of workers by supervisors. As per media reports, the union members also petitioned the Zimbabwe government for an action against the management of Afrochine Smelting Pvt Ltd, yet no action was taken.
Afrochine Smelting has also been accused of destroying the world heritage site, Mavuradonha in northern Zimbabwe, which is believed to be a sacred place where local Zimbabweans say their ancestors and spirits reside. For the sake of extracting chrome and other mineral resources, Chinese companies in collusion with local authorities, are said to be involved in Mavuradonha which is a restricted area in the landlocked African nation.
The issue of exploitation of Zimbabwean workers by Chinese companies has also been raised by several digital, print and television channels across Africa. AllAfrica.com, a website that aggregates news produced primarily from the African region, on July 8, 2021 reported war of words between Harare-based Chinese diplomats and Zimbabwe’s labour unions over allegations that business people from China are abusing their local employees.
Under a headline, ‘Zimbabwe: China clashes with Zimbabwean unions over systematic abuse’, the website report maintained that the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the largest labour centre representing private sector employees, recently created a story when used social media to expose the “slave-like working conditions” at a Chinese owned tile manufacturing factory on the outskirts of Harare.
However, now Chinese perpetrated abuses against local labourers seem to have crossed all limits of tolerance. Anti-China sentiments are growing rancorous with people beginning to realize that they are being oppressed to serve vested interests of Chinese. The US and Western media, think tanks are helping in fanning the growing anti-China sentiments; they are openly criticizing Beijing for being complicit in the exploitation of human rights of workers in Africa. A glimpse of this can be seen in the recent report of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a London- based nonprofit organization. The report said Africa has the second highest number of allegations of human rights abuses, with 26.7 percent of the claims recorded against Chinese companies operating abroad from 2013 to 2020.
Observers factor such criticism, which sometimes become virulent, for the rise in anti-US or anti- West campaigns by China. They, however, don’t hesitate to cast doubt on the impartiality of the local media, including The Herald. They feel that with the current Zimbabwe government in league with China, it is not impossible for the ruling elites to influence editorial lines of Zimbabwe’s largest read English newspaper. Whatever may be the truth, the heat generated by the Chinese media and government over the Zimbabwean daily’s story on US funding and training of local reporters to write anti-China stories must be properly investigated to differentiate chalk from cheese.