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PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe on Friday met his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, who praised the two nations' "strong and deep friendship" and pledged to boost trade and investment and strengthen political ties.

China has been a key international supporter for Mugabe, who is criticised and shunned by the United States and Europe.

"China supports the Zimbabwe government's hard work to restore and develop the economy, and is willing to push forward cooperation in mining, agriculture, infrastructure and other sectors," the official Xinhua agency quoted Hu saying.

Speaking at a meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Hu added that China would also explore new forms of economic cooperation and hopped to deepen political ties.

Political backing has not always translated into hard economic benefits for Zimbabwe. A raft of deals totalling $1.3 billion for the building of new coal mines and three thermal stations, signed in 2006, have not yielded results.

But after years of hyperinflation and contraction, the economy has stabilised under a power-sharing government formed last year by Mugabe and his rivals, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, creating a more attractive investment climate.

In May a new $400 million agreement was sealed with China's Sinohydro to expand the Kariba hydro electricity plant -- crucial to a full recovery of the economy as frequent power shortages threaten the key mining and manufacturing sectors.

And in April, China handed over a revamped National Sports Stadium to Zimbabwe after refurbishments costing $10 million.

Mugabe praised China's close attention to ties with Zimbabwe, and said he hoped to see more cooperation in fields from trade and infrastructure to education and healthy.

"We thank China for their long-standing vigorous support and unselfish help to Zimbabwe," Mugabe added.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two nations, but China's relationship with Mugabe dates back much further to when he was a leader in the liberation movement against white-minority rule.

Hailed as a saviour by fanatical supporters and praised throughout Africa for standing up to what many see as bullying by the West, Mugabe is hated in equal measure by opponents who accuse him of being a dictator.


China's embassy in Zimbabwe in February threw an 86th birthday party for Mugabe, and said it was the first time Mugabe had visited a foreign embassy in his capital since independence, testament to "special friendly relations" between the two.

Mugabe has tried to boost economic ties with Asian countries such as China and Malaysia. While in China he also visited the Shanghai World Expo, and the poor eastern province of Anhui.

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