Mugabe Jintao(Pictured: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and China’s President Hu Jintao.)

In what has to be one of the largest protection money payouts ever recorded, the Chinese government announced last week that it had agreed to loan Zimbabwe $700 million in desperately needed funds. Of course, the Chinese did not frame their offer as anything other than humanitarian, announcing that the loan would be used for investment in the agricultural, health and water sewage sectors. But amidst President Robert Mugabe’s demand that all foreign-owned mining ventures sell majority holdings to black Zimbabweans, the meaning of the money was clear. Vice Premier Wang Qishan, visiting Harare last week to announce the agreement, was unambiguous about the expected return on the loan, stating flatly that he “hope[d] Zimbabwe will protect the legitimate right of Chinese businesses in the country.”

Mugabe is likely to respect Beijing’s wishes. China’s largesse was timed perfectly with a particularly acute moment of crisis in Zimbabwe where political turbulence is quickly being overshadowed by the increasing threat of food shortages in the country. The country’s agricultural minister, Joseph Made, announced this week that six of the country’s ten provinces are currently facing severe food shortages. The country claims to have enough food to stem the threat of widespread hunger but not the resources to cover transport and distribution costs. The UN has requested nearly half a billion dollars in emergency aid to help aid efforts, but Made managed to soil the offer by announcing he would refuse to allow the UN-affiliated agencies into the country to assess Zimbabwe’s needs in the name of national security. The reason? “We don’t want to have politics in food,” Made argued. The country’s food czar quickly performed a rhetorical about-face, however, claiming that he had been misrepresented in response to critics’ contentions that the only person salting the country’s food with politics was the agricultural minister himself. But given the current circumstances, this may be the least of his problems.

The looming threat of mass starvation couldn’t come at a worse moment. As nationwide elections approach, steadily mounting political tensions between Mugabe and opposition prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai threaten to collapse the unity government that has been precariously in place since 2008. In recent weeks, Mugabe has ordered an end to MDC protests, jailed one of the prime minister’s closest allies, and has threatened to arrest Tsvangirai himself. But the prime minister has more than just Mugabe to contend with. The MDC leader must also keep his own party from splitting apart at the seams. A breakaway faction lead by Welshman Ncube has been flexing its muscles of late, refusing to come under the discipline of the party’s high command.

Ncube claims he was blocked from a top parliamentary position by a Mugabe-Tsvangirai tag-team effort, and that his faction will no longer follow the party line at a critical moment when the MDC needs all the help it can get. Complicating matters further, Ncube’s son is married to the daughter of chief peace negotiator and president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, who dispatched his team to Harare to help find ways to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s food security forecast is bleak. After a brutal drought last month, crop yields are expected to be virtually nonexistent throughout much of the country over the coming months which will almost certainly prompt an accompanying spike in food prices nationwide.

The shortages are nothing new in Zimbabwe, which has suffered through a decade of Mugabe’s failed land reform policies on the one hand, and Western sanctions targeting the regime’s dismal human rights record on the other. But this year looks to be especially bad, which makes China’s timing all the more remarkable.

Last month, the Chinese boldly offered Mugabe $3 billion for complete control over the country’s platinum reserves and a share of its lucrative diamond mining sector. By most accounts, Mugabe was ready to seize on the deal, but was rebuffed by opposition members of his coalition government who pointed out China’s opportunistic attempt at a wholesale land grab. Public outrage followed, and for good reason. Conservative estimates of Zimbabwe’s platinum reserves value them at between $30 and $40 billion, nearly ten times greater than what the Chinese offered.

Since then, China has ordered a public relations full-court press to contain resentment of their presence in Zimbabwe. Immediately before Vice Premier Wang landed in Harare, the Chinese government dispatched a small army of eye surgeons to the country to perform free cataract removal for hundreds of poor Zimbabweans. These complimentary procedures were the first in what the Chinese government promises will be a series of missions to cure the entire population of reversible blindness. Not only that, China has underscored its commitment to help Mugabe’s coalition government battle western sanctions, and most recently extended the landmark $700 million loans for agricultural revitalization.

Their efforts have already paid off. On Sunday, Mugabe announced that he was aggressively moving ahead with his plan to force all foreign-owned mining firms to sell majority stakes to local investors. Mugabe made clear that foreign-held mining corporations have until May 9 to outline plans for turning over majority control to Zimbabwean financiers, and six months to finalize indigenization of the country’s mining sector, or face unspecified penalties. All corporations, that is, except for those owned by China. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese companies, including those mining diamonds in Marange, will be exempt from indigenization regulations because they are carrying out ‘national projects,’ said Indigenization and Empowerment Minister Savior Kasukuwere.”

If this defense for exempting Chinese multinationals from national policy sounds fishy, that’s because in all likelihood it is. The irony, of course, is that while the indigenization scheme is designed to decisively erase the last vestiges of western colonialism’s legacy in Zimbabwe, Mugabe is potentially opening the door to the next generation of foreign domination. Only this time, instead of Europe maintaining the upper hand, Zimbabwe’s economic dependency will be hitched to the growing power of Beijing and a new era of imperialism—with Chinese characteristics.

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