Demand for Mandarin overwhelms Zim university

Five years ago, the Chinese-language class opened with two lecturers and only a dozen students.

Today, it bears the lofty name "the Confucius Institute at the University of Zimbabwe" and is virtually beating away applicants with a stick.

The institute now uses five classrooms for more than 700 students and continues to field hundreds of applications.

"The institute is in the process of engaging the government to incorporate Chinese in school syllabi," said director Pedzisai Mashiri.

So successful has the institute been that Mashiri said it was working at getting students at Chinese universities to take up Shona as a foreign language.

Mashiri said 14 Zimbabwean students were studying for master's degrees in Chinese at a university in China and seven Zimbabwean lecturers were on one-year scholarships from the Chinese government and would graduate this July.

Students at the Confucius Institute learn subjects such as "Chinese for tourism" and "Chinese for managers", essential subjects in a country whose economy is increasingly tying its fortunes to Beijing's rising star.

Last year, academic Mandivamba Rukuni ran a popular seminar on "learning the skills necessary to become an effective negotiator with the Chinese". The $1 000 fee did not deter participants.

When the lessons in the Chinese language began, they mostly served government bureaucrats. Now businesspeople, from heads of large corporations to small-time traders, want to learn the language.

"It is not only for my trips to Shanghai, but important for business here at home. There are a lot of Chinese people here that we interact with," said Jossie Dube, who enrolled at the school last year.

The language is not only being taught at university level.

Last week, first lady Grace Mugabe opened the Amai Mugabe Junior School in Mazowe, where 100 students will learn Mandarin as one of their subjects. Grace claims to speak and write Chinese. The school was built for her by the Anhui Foreign Economic Construction Company, the same enterprise that constructed the Zimbabwe Defence College just outside Harare.

Growing Chinese influence
A boom in Chinese restaurants also points to China's growing economic influence.

At the Great Wall Chinese restaurant in Harare's Belgravia suburb, getting a table for lunch is tough. 

The restaurant is popular among the Harare who's who.

Early this week a group of members of Parliament held a raucous lunch there on the day it sat to debate the proposed new constitution.

Strikes at Chinese-owned companies are frequent and workers often complain of low pay and allege physical abuse. 

Han Bing, the head of the economic and commercial consul at the Chinese embassy, admitted that the cultural gap between China and Zimbabwe was a source of conflict between the newly arrived Chinese and locals.  Yet some aspects of the Chinese lifestyle have lots of takers, especially among the rich.

At the end of a narrow and steep tree-lined avenue in Harare's wealthy Glen Lorne area, a local woman runs a thriving exclusive spa for the rich, hawking Chinese herbs, diet plans and therapeutic exercise. 

She declined to have her name or the name of her spa published, arguing that, "once too many people know, my clients will stop coming here".

For hundreds of dollars, rich people learn the ways of the qing dan diet and tai chi. She imports herbs from China and employs two Chinese "acupuncture experts". 

"People come here to release tension. They are busy and sometimes they need to bring their balance back," the proprietor said. She declined to say whether her treatments were legal.

New mall
In Harare's Belvedere, soldiers – and large golden dragon sculptures – stand guard over the entrance to the Long Cheng Plaza, a new mall being built by Anjin, another Chinese company.

The mall is being built over marshland, angering environmentalists, who warn that it would one day damage Harare's water supply.

The mall is owned by Anjin, whose joint venture with a Zimbabwe military-affiliated company in the Marange diamond fields explains why soldiers guard the complex.

The mall is having to delay its scheduled April opening after it was flooded, and the state Environmental Management Authority said this justified its opposition to the building.

But despite the controversy and rentals for some of the larger stores reportedly reaching $3 000 a month, according to property agents, all the shops have been taken up.

Agents say the bulk of the tenants are new arrivals from China. 

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