China's aid to Zimbabwe: the spirit is willing, but the purse is empty

China gave such strong military backing to black nationalist guerrillas during Zimbabwe's pre-independence war that the embattled Rhodesians often referred to the bush fighters as "the Mao Mao."

Ties between Peking and Salisbury remained close after the war ended and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe assumed power following elections 18 months ago. The fledgling government often speaks of its special relationship with Peking, and on China's national day, oct. 1, the official news media lavished praise on "the first and foremost of our friends."

Despite the close ties, Peking shows few signs of maintaining its peacetime aid at wartime levels.

"Its case of the spirit being willing, but the flesh weak," one Western Diplomat said.

Since promising zimbabwe 40 million yuan ($30 million) last March, China has been hit by drought and floods and has itself received international aid. Peking can no longer afford to be a major donor.

A member of China's diplomatic mission in Salisbury said the commitment would stand, but declared that the only firm project so far earmarked for Chinese involvement was the construction of a sports stadium in the capital.

Less specific agreement, he said, had been reached on joint ventures in coal mining, agriculture, and light industry. Planning for these projects has recently begun, he said.

The scale of Chinese aid so far is though to have disappointed Mr. Mugabe, who visited Peking twice since independence and returned with trade and cultural agreements.

But even if financial aid at the level of the 1970s is not forthcoming, China has much to offer Zimbabwe in the way of advice on developing its agricultura and industrial sectors in the rural areas. One of zimbabwe's most pressing problems is the equitable redistribution of land, half of which was in the hands of the white minority at independence. Cooperatives and state farms in the Chinese style are being considered as part of a massive land resettlement program.

Program planners have asked for Chinese advice on collectivism, which, while completely foreign to the zimbabwean peasant, has improved in China under Premier Zhao Ziyang and Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping.

Peking's ambassador to Zimbabwe said any future joint projects would use Chinese equipment and technical backup. Agricultural development would emphasize commodities, which would could bring Zimbabwean tobacco last year, and this year may import cotton, sugar, and chrome, he said.

Chinese-Zimbabwean relations were forged at the expense of Peking's arch enemy, the Soviet Union, which refused to aid Mr. Mugabe during the seven-year bush war. Instead the Soviets backed Mugabe's tenuous ally Joshua Nkomo, sending weapons and advisers.

Foreign governments rushed to open embassies after Mr. Mugabe came to power.Zimbabwe made the Kremlin pay for its tactical blunder by making it wait almost 15 months before allowing it to establish full diplomatic relations.

China has since warned its southern African ally that the Soviet Union is trying to meddle in African affairs.

The West has shown little apprehension at Soviet or Chinese involvement in Zimbabwe. However, it appeared to be concerned when 106 North Korean military advisers arrived in August. The Koreans will train a brigade of 5,000 Zimbabwean troops.

Prime Minister Mugabe say he regards North Korea as Just another nonaligned country and the training program as a balance to British involvement in the formation of Zimbabwe's new national army.

Meanwhile Zimbabwe follows an apparently pragmatist approach to foreign policy. Even though its leader, Mr. Mugabe, has Marxist leanings the government has yet to open embassies in Moscow, Pyongyang, and Peking.

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