Harare makes way for Little Shanghai

At the packed Wing Wah restaurant, the foodies stuff themselves with chow mein while others singing karaoke loudly are drunk on the white spirit, baijiu.

At another table, sophisticated diners are sipping wu-long tea, quietly meditating on feng shui and getting their chi in balance.  

It would not be out of place in uptown Shanghai, but this is suburban Harare where the growing influx of Chinese nationals is causing something of a cultural revolution.

Attracted by Zimbabwe's new money and a government that likes to see itself as China's best friend, Chinese businesspeople are making the trek to Zimbabwe, hoping to stake out a new life – and with the wave of Chinese prospectors arriving, even more change is coming.

At the University of Zimbabwe, the Confucius Institute is packing them in – businesspeople, traders, students and many others gathering in large classes to learn Mandarin. They enrol for courses such as "Chinese for tourism" and "Chinese for managers".

Cultural differences
According to Chinese officials, there are about 5 000 Chinese nationals living and working in Zimbabwe. But they are only those the Chinese embassy can account for.

The labour unions, the opposition and black empowerment activists are united in trying to stem the tide, although others say there is no stopping it – Zimbabweans must simply prepare for it.

This is why Mandivamba Rukuni, a prominent academic, is charging $1000 for a ticket to his seminars on "learning the skills necessary to become an effective negotiator with the Chinese".

"The Chinese are very different from us. That is a fact, not an opinion," Rukuni said.

"This workshop will explore the cultural differences an African negotiator needs to be aware of in recognising the bargaining strategies and tactics their Chinese counterparts are using."

Reflecting the tide, one of the courses at Rukuni's seminar will be on "how the Chinese approach to negotiation differs from the Western approach".

Prized by conservationists

It is not hard to see why these lessons are popular, even at $1000. Trade between Zimbabwe and China has doubled to more than $800-million over the past two years, according to Chinese ambassador Xin Shunkang.

More Chinese nationals are arriving, the wealthier and better connected heading for the diamond fields, but most trying to get in on the thriving retail and restaurant business.

"I arrived a year ago. No regret," said a Chinese takeaway owner, who would only give his name as Caijan.

"In China I would never get the opportunity we have here. Not crowded, good money, good people."

On the western outskirts of Harare, marshland prized by conservationists has given way to a large hotel and mall being built by Chinese investor Anjin, which also has diamond concessions.

When asked why Anjin had been allowed to build on the land, Karikoga Kaseke, the head of the state tourism agency, said Zimbabwe was not going to lose investment "to protect frogs and a few trees".

But not everyone is pleased.

"Over the last five years there has been an influx of Chinese businesses of all forms. Instead of aiding the development and growth of the economy, the Chinese have brought nothing new except exploiting the locals and overshadowing them," said Paurina Mpariwa, labour secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change and also the labour minister.

There appears to be nothing stopping the China wave – not with the Sunday Mail recently printing on its front page a note from first lady Grace Mugabe neatly handwritten in Chinese.

A local choir from the Zimbabwe College of Music is touring China, singing Mandarin love songs.

"We sing most of the Chinese songs very well because of the help of Chinese lecturers from the University of Zimbabwe," said choir leader Rachel Jera.

Every day there is a headline about some new, grand Chinese project in the works. This week: a Chinese company is to fund the Matabeleland-Zambezi water project, an ambitious venture first mooted by colonials a century ago.

A few weeks ago, President Robert  Mugabe bowed as he received blessings – rich with comparisons to Mao Zedong – from Kai Hui, master of Jin'an, a new Buddhist temple near the Chiadzwa diamond fields.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Jason Moyo
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