Recent research documents the globalization strategy of the Chinese tobacco industry since the early 2000s and risks posed to global health. There are limited analyses to date of how this strategy is playing out in specific countries. This paper analyses the expansion of the China National Tobacco Company (CNTC) in Zimbabwe, the largest producer of tobacco leaf globally, since the early 2000s, through document analysis. It applies a political economy framework—identifying material, ideational and institutional forces—to demonstrate how CNTC capitalized on the unique features of China-Africa development cooperation to pursue its expansion goals, which threaten global public health efforts to reduce tobacco supply. In a context of economic crisis, CNTC offered substantial resources to revive Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry, promoting a shift to contract farming of its preferred leaf. It benefited from perceptions of state friendship, which it fostered through corporate social responsibility initiatives. Through ties with the Chinese embassy and economic actors, CNTC embedded its interests in development institutions. While contributing to improved foreign exchange earnings and some farmers’ livelihoods, CNTC’s expansion has increased the dependence on China as a development partner and tobacco as a crop, benefitting its “go global” strategy, while contributing to public health and environmental challenges locally and globally. The expansion of the Chinese tobacco industry interests in Zimbabwe offers lessons for global tobacco control and efforts to support alternatives to tobacco growing.
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