Cultivating “Palace Diplomacy” and Local Media, China Donates New Parliamentary Building to Zimbabwe

China will soon hand over a newly constructed $140-million-dollar parliamentary building to Zimbabwe. Built by contractor Shanghai Construction Group Company and funded by the Chinese government, the building is the latest product of China’s “palace diplomacy,” which provides developing countries with brand-new government buildings in order to cultivate close relations with state leaders. To further solidify China’s image of benevolence in Zimbabwe and foster positive perceptions of the countries’ bilateral relations, the Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe has cultivated praise-laden coverage—some of it sourced directly from Chinese state media—in a number of local media outlets.

Jevans Nyabiage from the South China Morning Post described China’s gift to the Zimbabwean government

The 650-seat building will replace the current 100-seat, colonial-era building which Zimbabwean officials consider too small for the country’s 350 legislators.

Sitting on the top of a hill, the imposing circular complex, which has been built by China’s Shanghai Construction Group, is fully paid for by Beijing.

[…] “There is no doubt that the new parliament will become a landmark building in Zimbabwe and even in the whole of Southern Africa,” Shanghai Construction Group manager Libo Cai said on Wednesday.

“It will be yet another milestone for the China-Zimbabwe friendship which keeps getting stronger year after year.” 

China had previously constructed Zimbabwe’s largest sports stadium (now out of commission due to poor maintenance), and recently funded over $1.7 billion in upgrades to the country’s thermal and hydropower stations. In 2012, China finished construction on Zimbabwe’s National Defense College, which was plagued by allegations of poor workmanship. BBC anchor Nancy Kacungira shared a Twitter thread describing other high-profile government projects built by China as part of its efforts to cultivate “palace diplomacy” in Africa:

Public discussion has arisen in response to China’s architectural largesse. Some have raised concerns about the risk of Chinese espionage in Zimbabwe’s new parliamentary building. As Kacungira noted, French newspaper Le Monde previously reported that data from the IT network of the African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa was being transmitted to Shanghai every night, and that this had been going on ever since the building was constructed by China in 2012. Nunurai Jena from VOA collected reactions from several analysts who questioned the motives behind China’s gift to Zimbabwe:

Independent political analyst, Rejoice Ngwenya, questioned the so-called gift, saying it will come at a high cost to the nation’s sovereignty.

“Parliament is a very important building in a country and should not be given to some foreigner to build it. This can be equated to losing one’s dignity and put the sovereignty issue at stake,” said Ngwenya.

Another political analyst based in South Africa, Munjodzi Mtandiri, said people should have been consulted before the government signed an agreement with the Chinese to build the six-storey circular complex in Mt. Hampden.

“The problem with our leaders is that they just make important decisions without consulting the people. Building [a] new parliament near Harare is against the spirit of devolution. It should have been built in another town like Bulawayo,” said Mtandiri. 

Local media coverage of the property handover and other aspects of China-Zimbabwe relations has been positive, but as CDT has discovered, many pro-China articles in local outlets were sourced from Chinese state media, sometimes without proper attribution. In the Zimbabwe Mail, an article headlined “China vows to strengthen relations with [President] Mnangagwa” was published under the byline of a “staff reporter” on July 3, but it was copied word-for-word from a CGTN article published on the same date, under a slightly different headline. In mid-June, the outlet ran an article, sourced from Xinhua and properly attributed, about China’s hosting of the BRICS summit. Previously, it had run a long interview with the Chinese embassy in Harare, titled “We are not debt-trapping Zimbabwe – China.” The Zimbabwe Mail states on its website that its articles are occasionally syndicated from agencies such as Reuters and Xinhua, but that “for all third-party content, we always make sure we credit the original source.”

Last Wednesday, a staff reporter for the local outlet New Zimbabwe wrote a glowing article titled “New Parliament Building Complete: To cement ties between Zimbabwe and China.” On Sunday, the outlet ran an article sourced from Xinhua, properly attributed, titled “Mnangagwa commends China for support in meeting with top Beijing diplomat.” In late May, it ran another Xinhua-attributed article under the headline “CHINA: Zim medicine student savours freedom, diversity in Xinjiang.” 

The most lavish praise of China’s gift of the new parliamentary building came from The Herald, a Zimbabwean state-owned outlet that frequently carries Xinhua articles about both China– and non-China-related topics. In a lengthy article published under local bylines last week, The Herald lauded the “magnificence” of the new building in hagiographic detail:

From atop the hill upon which the edifice magnificently stands, the visitor is consumed in the serenity of the underlying environs, an expanse that stretches to the eye’s limit, creating a feeling of déjàvu that only comes with familiarity. It is that kind of peace and tranquil which lingers on in the heart, and is therapeutic to the soul. 

Outside, the dreamy feeling is only interrupted by the chirping birds in the foliage yonder, and the momentary whispering of both machinery and man. 

Indeed, man has the ability to turn stone, boulder, pebble, metal, wood, water, cement and soil into infectious beaty. 

[…] The envisioned highway that will lead to the New Parliament Building already has a name. It is called Chairman Mao Boulevard, in honour of a great friend of Zimbabwe. 

In an intriguing sign of intertwining Chinese and Russian media influence abroad, The Herald also ran an article on Friday titled “NATO a threat to global peace – China,” the content of which was copied from Russian state news agency TASS. Even Zimbabwe’s national broadcaster ZBC News published a TASS article in May, under the headline “China finds new evidence regarding US labs in Ukraine alarming.” Both of these articles amplify Chinese and Russian narratives about NATO and the war in Ukraine, underscoring the reach of the two countries’ respective external (dis)information campaigns.

It is unclear to what extent Chinese authorities may be actively cultivating the appearance of Chinese state media content and pro-China narratives in Zimbabwe’s media. The Chinese embassy in Harare has used similar accusations to try to discredit local media content critical of Chinese engagement in the country. Specifically, its Twitter account has on numerous occasions propagated the hashtag “Mr1K,” referencing the U.S. embassy in Harare, which it accuses of paying local journalists $1,000 for each article critical of China. Kate Bartlett at VOA described the Chinese embassy accusations that appeared under the hashtag #Mr1K:

Last September, the embassy’s official Twitter page coined the hashtag Mr1K,” retweeting an article in The Herald newspaper that claimed, “The United States is sponsoring a strategy to undermine Chinese investments in Zimbabwe … through disinformation, lies and sensationalism in independent media and on social platforms.”

The article in The Herald, which is closely aligned to Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU-PF party, said the U.S. Embassy in Harare had funded a training session for independent journalists and that reporters who pitched negative stories on Chinese businesses were being paid $1,000 per article.

[…] Asked about such comments, the Public Diplomacy Section at the U.S. Embassy in Harare replied to VOA by email. “We routinely provide training and U.S. exchange opportunities to journalists and other professionals in Zimbabwe and around the world to build expertise.”

The embassy said it had supported a September journalism workshop on labor rights and natural resource governance reporting that “did not focus on any particular country, government, or company.” 

China has also trained Zimbabwean journalists. Since at least 2011, dozens of Zimbabwean journalists have taken part in media training programs in China, some involving Xinhua personnel. Researchers have documented that many Chinese training programs for African journalists are fully funded, leave participants with a sense of “admiration and gratitude” for China, and (in Chinese state media’s own words) boost China’s “soft power.” These training programs are part of China’s broader people-to-people diplomacy, which has provided financial, technical, and military support to Zimbabwean leaders including current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power in a 2017 coup. 

Mnangagwa’s administration has close ties with numerous Chinese companies—such as Huawei, Cloudwalk, and Hikvision—that are supplying his government with surveillance tools, including facial recognition technology and Smart Cities. In 2020, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance gave Huawei a complete tax exemption retroactive to December 2009. These surveillance technologies have aided a government crackdown on its critics, which culminated in the arrests of several journalists including one who had criticized Mnangagwa’s fiscal policies. Reporting for Global Voices on one of these Chinese projects that uses biometric voting data, Kudzai Chimhangwa explained how they may influence Zimbabwe’s elections and further entrench autocratic power:

In 2018, Zimbabwe entered into a strategic cooperation partnership with Chinese startup CloudWalk Technology, under which the government would gain access to a facial recognition database that it could use for all kinds of purposes. These uses would range from easier policing under the Smart cities initiative to tracking down political dissidents among others. In return, China gains access to this database of Zimbabwean citizens in order to train its algorithms and improve the ability of its surveillance systems to recognize darker skinned tones. The agreement is being implemented in stages and will soon reach development of camera and network infrastructure in Zimbabwe. AI driven facial recognition software has historically had difficulties with recognizing such skin tones and with this harvesting of Zimbabweans’ personal data, China will gain a globally competitive edge in the AI market. 

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