Robert Mugabe is having a whale of a time on his state visit to China. The Zimbabwean president has been made an honorary professor and praised by Hu Jintao, the prime minister, as 'a familiar and much respected old friend of the Chinese people'. This is uncomfortable for the 700,000 Zimbabweans who have been made homeless in massive 'slum clearance' programmes, the United Nations, and much of the rest of the world - apart, most significantly, from neighbouring South Africa - who see Mr Mugabe as a pariah who should be shunned rather than given the red carpet treatment he is getting in Beijing.
If this welcome was purely ceremonial it might matter less. But a new trade agreement with China and promises of soft loans and investment will help Mr Mugabe with his policy of 'looking east' - adopted because the west has finally run out of patience with him. Both the EU and the US have imposed limited sanctions targeting the Zanu-PF regime because of its land seizures, rigged elections and other human rights abuses. The International Monetary Fund is to decide soon whether or not to axe Zimbabwe from its list of eligible borrowers.
Certainly there is a lot of similarity between Mugabe's programs and some of Mao's more spectacular failures. Perhaps it is this historic nostalgia that has made China so interested in supporting Zimbabwe.
I don't know if it would work or not, but I have long thought that some diplomatic jujitsu with China could be very beneficial for everyone. Basically, I believe that one of China's big desires is to gain standing and importance on the world stage. More than power, China wants prestige.
It seems with that lever it should be possible to convince China to agressively promote human rights. Sure, China isn't steller on that score, but there are places that are much worse than China. Zimbabwe is not a bad example. If we could convince China, behing the scenes, to lead a humanitarian in Zimbabwe it could confer much desired prestige on China and greatly help the situation in Zimbabwe. I believe that a deal could be reached where we would support China's actions in this arena in exchange for some minimum limits on how China went about this and what the eventual outcome was.
I expect also that this would have a desirable effect on China itself. As it invested it's might in helping failed states to reform politically and economically, it would naturally encourage internal reform as well, and given that it would obviously be doing so from a position of strength, not weakness, on the world stage that reform would be easier to swallow.
China wants to be a super power, lets make them act like one.