Interesting news from the UK's Independent:
Chinese troops have been seen on the streets of Zimbabwe's third largest city, Mutare, according to local witnesses. They were seen patrolling with Zimbabwean soldiers before and during Tuesday's ill-fated general strike called by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
If that's true, it's strange.
China hasn't exactly been on the side of the angels in Africa recently, true. But as its stakes in the continent grow, it has come to embrace a broader definition of its interests, one which includes economic progress and political stability on the continent. Stephanie Klein-Ahlbrandt and Andrew Small noted the changes in an essay in Foreign Affairs (sorry, subscription req'd.) earlier this year:
Chinese officials have complained that the economic situation in Zimbabwe -- where inflation is at 8,000 percent -- is "the worst" in the world and that Chinese deals with the Zimbabwean government over power stations, railways, and coal mining are a "headache." Multibillion-dollar projects announced with great fanfare have foundered. Harare has defaulted on Chinese loans. Hu skipped over Zimbabwe during a February 2007 trip during which he visited almost all of its neighbors. After publicly supporting Mugabe's brutal slum-clearance operation in 2005, Beijing remained icily silent during another opposition crackdown last year and intensified its efforts to cultivate ties with Mugabe's possible successors. Last September, the Chinese envoy Liu said that given the deteriorating situation, China would pare down its substantial development aid to Zimbabwe and limit itself to humanitarian assistance.
Most likely, the PLA has its own relationship with Mugabe's troops, and is just following through on previous commitments. But even this implies a lack of coordination or control from Beijing.
China could step up in a big way if it joined in international calls for the election results to be made public. Such a move would be completely in line with official policy, but definitely go against precedent. If China would like to shift attention from Tibet and Sudan and start to earn some "responsible stakeholder" bona fides, this is its chance.