Mugabe welcomes China's Xi in rare VIP visit

Harare (AFP) - China's President Xi Jinping arrived in Zimbabwe on Tuesday on a rare visit by a world leader to a country shunned by Western powers over President Robert Mugabe's widely-criticised record on human rights.

Xi was greeted at the airport by Mugabe, 91, who has ruled since independence in 1980, as hundreds of children waved miniature Chinese and Zimbabwean flags along the road into the capital Harare.

The two leaders will hold talks before attending a state banquet, with new Chinese investments likely to be announced to support Zimbabwe's economy, which has fallen into dire straits under Mugabe's rule.

Mugabe's wife Grace was part of the welcoming party for Xi, who was accompanied by Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan.

Xi is the most prominent leader for many years to visit Zimbabwe -- a diplomatic coup for Mugabe who has fostered ties with China since Beijing backed several African movements fighting to end colonial rule.

"We already have more than 100 Chinese companies who have invested in Zimbabwe and there is a lot of interest in all sectors of the economy from Chinese investors," Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa told reporters.

"This visit gives a guide to Chinese investors that Zimbabwe is a safe destination for their investments."

China is the largest buyer of tobacco from Zimbabwe, and -- as in many African countries -- has invested in mining, manufacturing and infrastructure.

China built Zimbabwe's National Sports Stadium in the 1980s, as well as rural hospitals and the country's biggest shopping mall, and also provided loans for water schemes and power stations.

- 'Little improvement' -

But analysts say Zimbabwe's economic troubles, which saw inflation soar to 500 billion percent during a decade-long recession that ended 2009, are unlikely to be solved by new Chinese investments.

"It's not going to change our economic fortunes in the short-term," Antony Hawkins, an economist at the University of Zimbabwe's School of Business, told AFP.

"Considering what has happened with past deals, we are sceptical of promises of big, megaprojects. We have had a lot of Chinese involvement before, but little improvement has happened."

Mugabe, who has often been accused of heading a repressive regime, was in October awarded the Confucius Peace Prize, a would-be Chinese rival to the Nobel Prize.

"This so–called historic state visit is in actual fact a public relations exercise that will not bring any meaningful and tangible benefits to the tottering economy of Zimbabwe," the opposition MDC party said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Xi is expected to visit the Heroes Acre memorial site that honours Zimbabwe's war dead before he flies to Johannesburg ahead of the sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

The summit, which will gather leaders from across Africa, comes amid growing African concern over the impact of the Chinese economic slowdown.

Seeking raw material to fuel its booming economy, China has poured investment into Africa and became the continent's largest trade partner in 2009.

But Chinese investment in Africa fell by more than 40 percent in the first half of 2015 due to its reduced demand for commodities such as oil, iron ore and copper.

Before the two-day summit begins on Friday, Xi will hold talks with South African President Jacob Zuma.

Xi, Mugabe and Zuma attended the opening of the climate change summit in Paris on Monday.