Robert Mugabe went to China last month and was greeted by Vice President Xi Jinping with a warm handshake and the same benevolent smile he must use with every important person he meets.
The smile that says, “I’m fine. You’re fine. Let’s all be fine together!”
This followed by a beaming look around the room to make sure everyone is feeling exactly the same.
Of course it’s no problem if someone is not feeling quite so unequivocally upbeat. You can just ignore them, or better yet put them in a place where you don’t have to look at them.
But clearly everything is not fine if Mr. Mugabe is in the room. Despite the fact that (as far as I know) he has yet to be indicted in any international court, the list of crimes he is said to have committed is long and gruesome. It includes:
- approving the massacre of about 20 000 people from an ethnic group who mostly opposed his rule
- ordering the demolition of slums that left 700,000 homeless
- rigged presidential elections including intimidation of opposition
- murder of political opponents
So it should be more than a little disturbing that he is embraced by China as an “old friend.”
The reason for China’s partnership is fairly obvious: China likes Zimbabwe’s natural resources; Zimbabwe needs China’s money. Mugabe’s murky past is conveniently overlooked.
(Hong Kong allows Mugabe to own a house, go shopping and send his daughter to university here, all presumably to avoid a snafu with Beijing.)
I guess I’d like to know is what makes these men able to do what they do. At the heart of the matter, they are able to ignore their own consciences and keep their grip on power at the expense of other people’s lives or wellbeing.
When does this disconnect occur? When do they start to look without seeing?
Maybe it is an inevitable effect of political life, an unavoidable choice that all political leaders have to make—the sacrifice of individual values for the sake of the greater good. Maybe it is impossible to rule or stay in political power without eventually making this compromise.
But sometimes I think the “greater good” and personal advancement are really just on the same spectrum of political power.
If you are interested, try Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing for a fictionalized account of the relationship between China and Zimbabwe, and Sydney Pollack’s film The Interpreter for a story that closely parallels Mugabe’s.