16 October 2019
Zimbabwe has experienced a period of hyperinflation and sharp currency depreciation. Photo: Africannews
Zimbabwe has experienced a period of hyperinflation and sharp currency depreciation. Photo: Africannews

Hong Kong’s ties with Zimbabwe: The past and the present

Although Zimbabwe is halfway across the world, many Hong Kong people are quite familiar with the African country, not least because the daughter of its former leader Robert Mugabe, who fell from power recently, used to study at a university here.

And Mugabe’s wife also grabbed headlines in Hong Kong several years ago for assaulting journalists and buying a luxury home in Tai Po.

However, perhaps little known is that the city’s ties with Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia, actually date back to long before its black people took power.

Rhodesia, like South Africa, used to be a British colony ruled by the white minority and racially segregated. The present-day Zimbabwe had been known as “Southern Rhodesia” until the colony declared unilateral independence in 1965.

Throughout the 1950s till the 70s, Hong Kong, also a British colony, had close trade relations with Rhodesia, which at that time was a very rich agricultural country that produced a lot of cotton and corn.

In particular, during the 70s when Hong Kong’s economy was still dominated by the manufacturing industry, Rhodesia was seen by many textile and garment factory owners in Hong Kong as one of the most “stable” suppliers and trading partners in Africa.

Many historians have attributed the economic prosperity of Rhodesia to the technological and capital input of white farm owners.

Apart from our close economic ties, there was also a lot of interaction between the white ruling elites in Rhodesia and Hong Kong. For example, Sir Douglas Clague, founder of Hutchison International, which would later become the Hutchison Whampoa, as well as co-founder of TVB, was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1917.

Sir Hugh Norman Walker, former Chief Secretary of the British colonial government in Hong Kong, had served in the administration of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a former British colony that included today’s Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, back in the 50s before he came to our city.

During the early years of President Mugabe’s rule, he tried to retain the white farm owners by guaranteeing their rights. However, as the economy of Zimbabwe continued to deteriorate, Mugabe, who was desperate to hold on to his power, incited the indigenous black Zimbabweans to turn against the white minority.

In around 2000, Mugabe introduced a highly controversial land reform program, under which he made it legal for black Zimbabweans to seize land and properties from the local white people without compensation, resulting in a mass exodus of white farmers and landowners from the country along with their skills and capital.

Worse still, the indigenous black people who took control of the farms simply lacked the necessary knowhow and experience to run them, and hence the ensuing nationwide famine. And since then the name “Zimbabwe” has become rarely mentioned among the business circles in Hong Kong.

Luckily, Mugabe later found a powerful ally, namely China. In fact Mugabe’s relations with China date back to as early as the 1960s and 70s when he was leading an insurgency against the white regime, during which Beijing eagerly threw its weight behind him by providing his rebels with weapons and military training.

When Zimbabwe’s economy was on the brink of collapse as a result of western economic sanctions, Mugabe once again looked to Beijing for help. And since then China has become one of the very handful of countries that are still investing heavily in Zimbabwe, including its infrastructure, agriculture, energy and even military facilities.

No wonder the London newspaper Times once commented that “China could make Zimbabwe into its first modern colony.”

Even though the recently ousted Mugabe has insisted that he won’t go into exile, given the fact that he is still on good terms with Beijing, and given his money and properties in Hong Kong, it would seem totally reasonable if he finally seeks refuge in our city.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 12

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal