The general behind Zimbabwe's coup may have sought Chinese approval days before the army launched its takeover of Robert Mugabe's government, it emerged on Wednesday.

Mugabe remained under house arrest, still president of Zimbabwe if in name alone, a prisoner of once slavishly loyal generals who now hold the country's fate in their hands, the Daily Telegraph reports.

As the former British colony faced a deeply uncertain future under military tutelage, a trip to Beijing by General Constantine Chiwenga, the head of the armed forces, last week has reignited concerns about rising Chinese influence in Africa.

Chinese Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan hosted the Zimbabwean general. Photo / AP
Chinese Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan hosted the Zimbabwean general. Photo / AP

The general held high-level meetings with officials from the Defence Ministry, and visited a school to observe a Shaolin Kung Fu class.

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Although the Chinese foreign ministry insisted Chiwenga's visit was a "routine visit", analysts have suggested that Beijing may have given the rebellious army chief its tacit blessing in advance.

Fired vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa and his allies have made conscious efforts to court Beijing as both an investor and a military partner.

China, which has displaced Western rivals to become Africa's largest trading partner and is a major investor in Zimbabwe, notably declined to call for Mugabe's restoration yesterday, despite his long ties to Beijing dating back to the Cold War.

Soldiers man their position with a military vehicle outside the office of President Robert Mugabe in Harare. Photo / AP
Soldiers man their position with a military vehicle outside the office of President Robert Mugabe in Harare. Photo / AP

Last year, China pledged to invest US$4 billion in Zimbabwe for investment, loans and aid over the next three years.

Responding to the coup, the Chinese foreign ministry merely stated that Beijing was "paying close attention to developments", prompting suggestions that China had agreed to sacrifice "Comrade Mugabe" in the interests of an orderly succession.

This article originally appeared on the Daily Telegraph and is reproduced with permission.