Mugabe discovers a Chinese remedy to his economic woes

Zimbabweans now travel on Chinese buses, wear Chinese shoes and have an army equipped by China, while Mr Mugabe's bedroom is said to be decorated with midnight blue tiles imported from China.

The leader has arrived in Beijing for six days of talks in an attempt to turn his embrace of all things Chinese into an escape package to relieve an economic crisis threatening to engulf Zimbabwe.

Since Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth in 2002, Mr Mugabe has looked for help from Asian economies. His "Look East" strategy aims to attract Asian tourists and investment to replace European and American holidaymakers and Western finance.

Across Zimbabwe, Chinese companies are building hydroelectric generators and roads. Zimbabweans are finding the planes and buses they use are made in China. There are rumours China provides the water cannons used to attack protesters. Mr Mugabe has also held out a promise of investment in the country's platinum mines to keep Chinese investors interested.

His visit comes days after his government said it was exploring alternative lines of credit with Asian countries to help service its $4.5bn (£2.6bn) debt.

Meanwhile, South Africa, under pressure to distance itself from Mr Mugabe, is in talks with the Zimbabwean government, and is considering a $1bn (£576m) loan.

President Thabo Mbeki said yesterday: "We don't want a Zimbabwe collapse next door. South Africa would inherit all the consequences of a collapse of Zimbabwe."

Europe and America have condemned Mr Mugabe's policies of seizing white-owned farms and denying food to opposition party supporters. Last week, the United Nations released a report that condemned his urban-slum clearance programme, which has left 700,000 people homeless.

By contrast, China has already begun investing in volatile, mineral-rich regions such as southern Sudan and Angola and has taken little notice of the human rights records of governments with which it deals.

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