JC Castle is an unlikely home for a world dictator. Although posh and secluded, the compound's pale pink boxlike villas look altogether drab in this city of tycoons and high rollers. On Saturday, a few shirtless residents smoked cigarettes on balconies, clotheslines suspended from the railings. Potted plants unevenly line the estate's walls behind them, perhaps, lies a vital part of the exit strategy of Robert Mugabe, the President of impoverished Zimbabwe.
In recent months, Zimbabwe's octogenarian autocrat has watched as his country was ravaged, first by chronic food shortages, hyperinflation and political turmoil, and then by a cholera epidemic that continues unabated. Although Mugabe still locks up political opponents, most recently a deputy minister slated to be sworn into the new unity government, his rule has been weakened by a power-sharing agreement with an emboldened and entrenched opposition. His position is as insecure as it has ever been, and, if press reports this month are to believed, he and his confidantes are looking to Asia and to property at JC Castle named for the action star Jackie Chan by the real estate group behind the residential development for solace and safety. (See 10 things to do in Hong Kong.)
An exposé published last week in the London-based Sunday Times alleges that Mugabe and his wife Grace have amassed a string of investments through a shadowy network of partners in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, most likely with funds funneled out of Zimbabwe's coffers. Mugabe is reviled by many of his countrymen and much of the world for the corruption and cronyism of his regime, and extensive U.S. and European Union economic sanctions bar him and his associates from visiting or conducting financial affairs in the West. So the former champion of anticolonial revolution has over the years turned toward the wealthier climes of Southeast Asia, where he once could count on significant support and still does among private circles of businessmen and politicos.
Chief among his alleged Asian possessions is the $5.7 million house purchased last year in this remote development, perched beneath a hilly copse of trees in Hong Kong's verdant New Territories. An agitated guard stationed by JC Castle's iron-gated entrance told TIME there was no such house; she was contradicted by a superior who said its occupants had left strict instructions not to be disturbed by visitors. When two Sunday Times journalists approached the compound to photograph the villa last week, they were reportedly assaulted by three African guards and had to receive medical treatment. This attack followed another encounter last month, when Grace Mugabe and a bodyguard allegedly slapped and bruised a photographer tailing her around a ritzy Hong Kong mall. She left the city, a special administrative region of China, before investigators could make inquiries.
Grace Mugabe, four decades the President's junior, is accused by critics of extravagant spending sprees, with funds supposedly siphoned from Zimbabwe's state bank. According to the Sunday Times, she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on designer handbags and Vietnamese marble statues, and is supposedly speculating in a lucrative China-based diamond business. During stays in Hong Kong, according to local reports, Grace's entourage occupies two whole floors of some of the fanciest hotels. She was photographed in 2003 with 15 trolley loads of luxury goods while sitting in a first-class lounge in Singapore's airport. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe reportedly doled out $92,000 for her latest holiday, which began in Malaysia last month where the Mugabes are reputed to own a vacation home. An article in the Zimbabwe Times claims that the bank's governor, Gideon Gono, accompanied Grace on the trip.
While Hong Kong maintains strict rules against money laundering, the Mugabes, it appears, have established themselves here with little trouble. Bona Mugabe, the dictator's 20-year-old daughter, is allegedly enrolled at Hong Kong's City University. (Mugabe's relatives have been barred entry at schools in the West and Australia.) The Zimbabwe National Students Union, based in Harare, issued a petition on Feb. 15 demanding Bona's deportation back to Zimbabwe, so that she could resume her studies alongside her people. "The state of our education system is so deplorable," reads their statement, "that [Robert Mugabe] has seen it fit to trust the Chinese for the education of his daughter."
Pro-democracy legislators and human-rights activists are reviewing whether the Mugabe presence in Hong Kong can be challenged, but it remains unclear how much can be done to thwart a head of state who remains close to Beijing. "At the end of the day, Hong Kong has no power over its foreign dealings," says Law Yuk-Kai of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman told the Hong Kongbased South China Morning Post on Feb. 17 that Mugabe had the right to invest in Hong Kong real estate. "Hong Kong is a free port ... even Falun Gong practitioners can buy a property there," said the unnamed official. The connection between a marginalized religious sect and a tyrant in power for three decades may be tenuous, but, for Zimbabweans, half of whom face malnutrition, it must elicit the most cynical, if fleeting, of smiles.