As Zimbabwe prepares to send another cohort to the China, President Mugabe's social media advice to students reveals much about the troubles facing the country.
Since the early 2000s, the number of African students studying in China has skyrocketed from around 2,000 in 2003 to 50,000 in 2015. This makes China the second most popular destination for African international students (surpassing the U.S and UK) behind France. While Asian international students still dominate enrolment at Chinese universities, proportionally more students are coming to China each year from Africa than from anywhere else in the world. Indeed, China now hosts more African international students than students from the Americas, with African students growing from two to 13 percent of China’s total foreign student population in the last 15 years.
Zimbabwe and China’s education endeavours
Going forward China seeks to continue to foster education connections with Africa, pledging 30,000 scholarships for African students by 2018. Some of these learning opportunities are already in place, and Zimbabwe in particular has embraced education cooperation with China. In July, Zimbabwe sent 20 summer exchange students to Renmin University as part of its annual summer exchange to China. The students in question enrolled in Chinese language proficiency courses, and the program’s organizers are planning on introducing the teaching of Shona language and Zimbabwean culture classes at Renmin University for Chinese students.
Similarly, President Robert Mugabe recently hosted 49 Zimbabwean students who have garnered scholarships to study at Ocean (Haida) University in Qingdao, China. The students are the beneficiaries of Mugabe’s Presidential Scholarship Programme, which has provided 20,000 scholarships since its inception in 1995. It is interesting to note that the first private company to partner with this program was Qingdao Hengshun Zhongsheng Group (SHE). The company has provided funding for the program as well as donated the construction of an elementary school to Zimbabwe.
Tellingly, this is also the same company that was awarded a $6 billion contract for a 200 km² business park in Zimbabwe. The agreement with Ocean University and SHE are the fruits of a cooperation agreement signed between Zimbabwe and Qingdao city in early 2016. Zimbabwe also hosted a six day Chinese film festival last week, in conjunction with China Film Group Corporation and the Chinese embassy. China’s soft-power overtures were also on display in South Africa in early September, with the inaugural “From University to the World” Student Dialogue in Cape Town. Sponsored by China Radio International, China Plus and Global Max Media Group, the event further demonstrates China’s concerted effort to court African students.
President Mugabe’s freshmen tips
President Mugabe has often expressed his admiration of China’s economic progress and social cohesion - a sentiment common among African autocrats. Speaking to the aforementioned scholarship students, Mugabe reminded them that “now you are going to learn. University is not a place where students play with the internet, using their mobile phones etcetera. No. This is a place where you go study seriously.” While this may sound like the common-sense advice any parent would give, there are many layers to Mugabe’s message.
Firstly, Mugabe is referencing China’s strict social media and internet controls, thus reminding students not to run afoul of Chinese laws and embarrass his government. Secondly, by highlighting China’s restrictions, Mugabe is legitimizing Zimbabwe’s own social media restrictions, showing that other countries employ similar methods, as well as implying that Zimbabwean students should adopt the obedient nature of their Chinese counterparts.
This message was hammered home by Information, Media and Broadcasting Service Minister Christopher Mushohwe. Addressing the students, Mushohwe marvelled at how 700 million Chinese can access the internet and that even Chinese students studying overseas respect Beijing’s media restrictions when they return. Mushohwe in turn contrasted these statements with the situation in Zimbabwe. “In Zimbabwe we have serious problems with social media but we have not more than 1.5 million people hooked on the internet. We get serious headaches, and for me, who is responsible for the ministry you can imagine my problems,” complained Mushohwe.
After lamenting about the daily complaints he receives from people 'abused' on social media, Mushohwe went on to remind the students that he was aware they were active on social media, closing with more praise for China: “China is a much disciplined country. You will never find one small stupid item on social media in China. It is not possible [sic].” The message to students is clear: come back with a degree as well as a heightened degree of respect for Zimbabwe’s leadership.
The irony of the situation is that while the Zimbabwean leadership complains about people using the internet to bamboozle them, the regime has tried for years to boost national computer literacy and internet use, with little success. Grass-roots adoption of social media and smart devices bypasses government regulated computer literacy plans, and it is this lack of control over access and teaching that (along with online activism) annoys Harare. For instance, Zimbabwean media recently reported on how thousands of computers donated by Mugabe to the nation’s schools have remained in their packaging and unused.
Having sent thousands of computers to schools since 2000, they have since mouldered unopened, while quickly become obsolete, as educators lack the necessary computer literacy to teach students. To add insult to injury, even if a teacher is computer literate most of Zimbabwe’s rural schools lack access to electricity in the first place, making the entire endeavour a poster child for government incompetence.
Zimbabwe’s social media victims
Mugabe and Mushohwe’s statements no doubt resonated with students as recent events in Zimbabwe have highlighted the 'dangers' of social media. Specifically, government authorities arrested pastor Evan Mawarire on September 25th after he hosted a live Facebook video chat about the country’s growing economic crisis. Mawarire, the leader of the ThisFlag protest movement, called on Zimbabwean citizens to come together for non-violent “action that is going to speak to government.” As a result of his advocacy, Mawarire is being charged with subverting the Mugabe government.
Furthermore, in an ironic twist, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has complained about the very kind of abuse by the media which Minister Mushohwe mentioned. While the minister was referring to the ‘abuse’ suffered by public figures at the hands of social media, Tsvangirai has complained about the same thing emanating from Zimbabwe’s mainstream media; itself heavily influenced by the government. Tsvangirai - who is currently undergoing cancer treatment in South Africa - has complained about the media’s portrayal of him as a “dying man” - arguing that this is part of a government campaign to demoralize opposition supporters.
That being said, this media narrative is feeding off of existing concerns that should the charismatic opposition leader die before the upcoming 2018 elections, the anti-Mugabe coalition will be dealt a heavy blow. With the spectre of death hanging over Tsvangirai and the coalition’s hopes - not to mention over the 93 year old Mugabe - students embarking on a four year degree may find a radically different country when they return.
Jeremy Luedi is the editor of Asia by Africa. His writing has been featured in Business Insider, The Japan Times, The Diplomat, FACTA Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Asia Times. His insights have also been quoted by TIME, OZY, and the Washington Times, among others.