To China with love from Zimbabwe
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is in China.
Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is in China. It's a hot topic in Zimbabwe's capital city Harare – at least amongst the politicians.
Tsvangirai is known as being anti-China, accusing the country of ignoring alleged human rights abuses in his country and backing President Mugabe politically and financially when western nations shunned him.
I remember attending many MDC political rallies (Tsvangirai's party the Movement for Democratic Change) in 2008 – that election that was not only controversial but led to the loss of many lives.
I'm sitting in the lobby of an upmarket hotel in Harare. From my corner I get to scan the room and occasionally listen in on a conversation with relative ease. Some of the country's richest and influential people are milling around, sipping coffee, making business deals and wearing the latest fashions from abroad.
Zimbabwean born football player Benjani Mwaruwaru is also in town. He used to play for Manchester City among other teams. He isn't hard to miss because there is always a fan or two waiting for an autograph or a bevy of very beautiful young ladies hoping to get lucky.
The table next to me orders a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue. It's the start of winter and it's getting cold. The well dressed, clean shaven men casually mention the change in weather and remind each other to always carry a coat in the car from now on.
Outside an impressive array of luxury vehicles are parked. This is a country with an estimated 80 per cent unemployment rate and I am looking at the latest models probably paid for in full using the US dollar.
It's what you would see in almost every African nation I suppose – a privileged few flaunting what they have.
The waitress comes over and tells me there has been another interruption to the electricity supply and the coffee machine isn’t working. I can either wait for the power to come back on or leave.
I smile and politely thank her for telling me. I choose to stay. This is Zimbabwe – power cuts are a regular thing here. Anyone who complains is either new to the environment or has the naive belief complaining about it will miraculously get the state-owned power company ZESA, to get its act together.
I'm joined by Chris Mustvangwa, a member of ZANU-PF. In a few minutes he sums up the sentiment of Mugabe's ruling party.
"ZANU-PF has been vindicated. We knew all along China was the horse to back. Now look at Europe with their economic crisis," he says.
"We are happy the prime minister is coming on board realising that China is the second largest economy in world, and growing at a big rate. It is an important player on the geo-political stage and Zimbabwe needs to be on good terms with china."
It's easy to see why ZANU-PF officials adore China. China is a long-time ally of Mugabe. It supported the liberation struggle before independence from Britain in 1980 with military training and arms. When some Western nations shunned Mugabe, Beijing supported him.
In return, China's investments have been growing in Zimbabwe and they include diamond and chrome mining, platinum concessions, road construction, cotton and tobacco companies as well as a cement manufacturing plant.
ZANU-PF see Tsvangirai's visit to China as a political coup – a feather in their cap. Their spin on the visit is that Tsvangirai is finally on the same page as Mugabe and the West has failed to cause a rift between the two men.
The state media has been spewing this line all week. Whether ZANU-PF and Mugabe believe it doesn't matter – it's what they are feeding the population, it's something they will certainly use in their election campaign.
I realise I won't get an MDC opinion in here. It's a government-owned establishment – not many 'opposition' supporters come here often. If they do it's not to openly talk about politics in case someone is listening.
People are still paranoid here and with good reason. Many have been beaten, arrested or disappeared for saying things not favourable to those in charge. I confess there have been times I have lowered my voice when I am discussing something I know might make a target.
The MDC gets very little airplay in the state media so I don't get their side of the story on the 8 o'clock evening news on ZBC. The first 30 minutes is about elections, the draft constitution, land politics etc…
The rest is business news (pro ZANU-PF business matters), entertainment and sport. At the end of the bulletin the message has been drummed into your ears very subtly, VOTE ZANU- PF.
The next morning I visit Avondale Flea market – a hive of activity even during the middle of the week. You can buy just about anything here and most of it is made in China.
Zimbabweans call the goods Zhing Zhongs – a nickname given to products made in China that are of poor quality and probably won't last very long.
The labour minister wants Chinese products and businesses banned – saying they are hurting the local manufacturers and exploiting workers. But Tsvangirai's trip to China seems to send a different message.
Economists say even Tsvangirai can't ignore China's influence. Tsvangirai and the MDC are now part of a coalition government which needs money, lots of it, to stay afloat. Right now, China is willing to give.
Unfortunately, Zimbabwe isn't known for paying off its debts.
I meet economist Tony Hawkins to talk about what Tsvangirai can realistically achieve in China.
He smiles and says, "Zimbabwe is a massive debtor, it owes $8bn or $9bn and most of it in arrears. There are technical problems and most of the money Zimbabwe owes China is still outstanding.
"Until old debts are paid off, China could be reluctant to sign new concrete agreements."
So in short, the prime minister's trip could be more symbolic than anything else.
But ulitmately China's interest in Zimbabwe is an economic one. Beijing will try and work with both sides of Zimbabwe's coalition government.
Politicians here are gearing up for an election.
Should there be a shift in the balance of power one day - it could mean China's multi-billion dollar investments are safe no matter who is in charge.