China is preparing to hand over a new US$140 million parliament building as a gift to Zimbabwe – the latest in a series of grand projects across Africa designed to deepen its influence in the continent, where it is the largest trading partner and lender.
The site at Mount Hampden, about 18km (11 miles) northwest of the capital Harare, heralds the start of a new city.
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.
The contractors said the facility was now ready to be handed over, 3½ years after construction started on a project that employed more than 500 Chinese technicians and 1,200 local workers.
“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.”
The building covers a total area of 33,000 square metres (355,200 sq ft) and has two main buildings – a six-storey office building and a four-storey parliament building.
Cai said the building was fully funded by the Chinese government.
To ease congestion in the crowded capital, Zimbabwe plans to relocate the judiciary and executive branches, and some of its administrative units, to the site. A statehouse and official residences for the House speaker and Senate president will also be built there.
The new city will eventually become home to the country’s reserve bank, upmarket suburbs, hotels and shopping malls.
The Chinese embassy in Zimbabwe said in a tweet that “thanks to the hardworking of the Chinese and Zimbabwean technicians, it [the parliament] is expected to trigger more mega projects in the Mount Hampden area and boost the development of a new satellite city”.
It is the latest in a series of similar Chinese-funded projects across the continent, where Beijing has also paid for the construction of palaces, sports stadiums and conference centres as part of a decades-old diplomatic strategy.
When Beijing first started establishing diplomatic relations with Africa between the 1950s and 1970s, it offered financial help and interest-free loans and sent over medical teams.
In return, those nations helped Beijing secure the Chinese seat on the United Nations Security Council in 1971, which had been occupied by the Republic of China government that fled to Taiwan in 1949.
Other recent projects include the Kenneth Kaunda International Conference Centre, which China Jiangsu International Economic and Technical Cooperation Group handed over to the Zambian authorities in late May.
The centre, named after the country’s first president, is expected to host the upcoming African Union midyear summit and was described by President Hakainde Hichilema as “a symbol of the unshakeable friendship between Zambia and the People’s Republic of China”.
In Ethiopia, work on the US$80 million Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention headquarters is also nearing completion. The country also plays host to the ultra-modern US$200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, funded and built by China as a “gift to the African people”.
Research by Paul Nantulya, from the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies at Washington’s National Defence University, has calculated that China constructed or renovated 186 government buildings in at least 40 African countries between 2000 and 2018.
Nantulya has previously described China as playing the long game, saying in February: “Its presence is felt each time an African walks into any of those buildings. China is creating a portrait of itself as an enduring partner that remains present and stands in solidarity with African governments.”
David Shinn, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, said building diplomacy had long been an important part of China’s foreign policy, but it had increased in significance in recent years.
He said most of the construction projects were funded by loans but others had been gifts. Aside from the new Zimbabwe parliament and the AU headquarters, the latter also includes Kenya’s foreign ministry and Burundi’s presidential palace.
“This allows China to have considerable influence with the officials who benefit from the facilities,” Shinn said.
But, he said: “Chinese companies usually install all of the communications equipment. This raises potential security issues for the African recipients.”
In one major controversy in 2018, Beijing was accused of bugging the AU headquarters.
The French newspaper Le Monde, citing anonymous AU sources, said that for five years, data had been transferred nightly from computers in the building to Chinese servers and hidden microphones had also been found.
Beijing rejected the accusations as “preposterous” and baseless.
Stephen Chan, professor of politics and international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said all the parliament buildings were of similar design and reflected the Chinese model of a circular central chamber.
“In other words, the symbolism of government and opposition directly facing each other is sidestepped,” Chan said.
Likewise, he said airports were of the same design but those were tied to loans and were not gifts.
“So the two practices, of building diplomacy as gifts and the lending of money, have been in use side by side for some time and will continue to be separate practices,” he said.
“What building diplomacy neglects, however, is the use of African architects and African architectural imagination. It cancels self-reliance not only in building for oneself but self-expression in the imagination of Africa’s best architects.” – South Morning Post