If so, the world may just have witnessed the first example of a covert coup d’etat of the kind once favoured by the CIA and Britain’s MI6, but conceived and executed with the tacit support of the 21st century’s new global superpower.
China, Africa’s biggest foreign investor, has more at stake in Zimbabwe, and more political influence, than any other state. This is largely due to its extensive investments in the mining, agriculture, energy and construction sectors. China was Zimbabwe’s top trade partner in 2015, buying 28% of its exports. But the Chinese connection is about more than money.
The pre-independence guerrilla force led to victory by Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old Zimbabwean president detained by the military on Tuesday night, was financed and armed by the Chinese in the 1970s. Close ties have continued to the present day.
When the US and EU imposed sanctions after Zimbabwe’s 2002 elections, China stepped in, investing in over 100 projects. Beijing also blocked UN security council moves to impose an arms embargo and restrictions on regime figures.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, visited Zimbabwe in December 2015 and has since promised a massive $5bn (£3.8bn) in additional direct aid and investment. He described China as Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”.
Xi’s personal support extended to providing $46m towards building a new parliament in Harare. The Mugabe family is reported to have savings and property assets squirrelled away in Hong Kong, a favourite shopping destination for Mugabe’s wife, Grace.
Aware of criticism from Mugabe’s opponents that Beijing is propping up a despotic regime, China has used soft power tools to win over public opinion. This included a $100m medical loan facility in 2011 and the construction of a new hospital in rural Zimbabwe. In 2015, state-owned Power Construction Corporation of China signed a $1.2bn deal to expand Zimbabwe’s largest thermal power plant. Chinese investors have also bought into farms seized from their former white owners and given to Mugabe cronies who subsequently neglected them.
China’s big bet on Zimbabwe is not all staked on Mugabe and his faction in the ruling Zanu-PF party. Military-to-military cooperation has continued since independence in 1980. China financed and built Zimbabwe’s National Defence College and the People’s Liberation Army has helped train the Zimbabwean army.