ZANU PF provincial chairpersons who recently returned from Beijing where they received ideological and mass mobilisation training from the Communist Party of China (CPC) with regard to elections were told their party must embrace change or die.
This comes as the CPC, which has been ruling since the end of the civil war in 1949, yesterday opened its congress in Beijing which began the once-in-a-decade leadership changes and power transfer with a warning that corruption might destroy the party if it goes unchecked.
Chinese President Hu Jintao, who will hand over power to Xi Jinping, opened the congress at the Great Hall of the People before 2000 delegates, warning corruption "could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state".
In the process he threatened to deal with those involved in corruption "whoever they are and whatever power or official positions they have".
He was mainly referring to disgraced CPC heavyweight Bo Xilai and other corrupt senior party officials. He could also have been referring to outgoing premier Wen Jiabao, who will be succeeded by Li Keqiang, after revelations his family had amassed a vast fortune during his reign.
The Zanu PF delegation was told new leaders of the CPC, who would be elected at the congress which started yesterday, would be the first generation born after the 1949 revolution that brought the party to power.
Jinping, taking over from Hu as president, is 59. He was born on June 1, 1953. Hu is retiring at 69. Li, who will take over from Wen as the new prime minister, was born on July 1, 1955 and is 57. Wen is retiring as premier at 70.
By contrast President Robert Mugabe is 88. The Chinese top leadership is mainly young while Zanu PF is largely dominated by geriatrics.
Hu's legacy would be consensus-based and collective leadership in an age in which Chinese society is undergoing rapid, profound and disorientating changes amid economic prosperity.
CPC's congress comes ahead of Zanu PF's annual conference from December 4-9 and the party's elective congress next year.
Sources said CPC leaders frankly told Zanu PF chairpersons that without leadership renewal and reform their party was going nowhere.
"We were warned of the need to constantly renew our party leadership so that we remain relevant and adopt as a priority economic development strategies that boost the economy and empower the masses," said a source.
After Mao's disastrous land reform programme in 1958, China has been rapidly changing.
Since 1978 China, with the late Deng Xiaoping in charge, has gradually pursued market economy reforms, creating an investment-and-export-led economy which has now become the second largest in the world.
The key to China's success has been vision, leadership renewal, reform, as well as investor-friendly policies and property rights.
Speaking at the congress yesterday, Hu said a new model for economic growth was needed to respond to domestic and global changes.
"On the basis of making China's development much more balanced, coordinated and sustainable, we should double its 2010 GDP and per capita income for both urban and rural residents (by 2020)," he said.
Sources said Zanu PF provincial leaders were shocked when the CPC bluntly told them that unless their party adopted leadership renewal it would be difficult to reinvent itself ahead of crucial elections next year. The Chinese party emphasised to Zanu PF leaders the need for ideological training, mass mobilisation and the importance of being dynamic in the face of shifting challenges.
It is said the Chinese advised Zanu PF to change leaders much to the disbelief of the chairpersons who were unwilling to discuss the issue of succession, a topic which is taboo in their party back home.
The 10 Zanu PF chairpersons were recently dispatched to China to draw lessons on how the CPC had managed to remain relevant in an ever-changing political and global landscape.
Upon return the chairpersons dwelt on the other lessons they had learnt from the CPC but were mum on the leadership renewal warning as they feared it could backfire on them, especially now that Zanu PF is heading towards its annual conference next month and congress next year. The party has suppressed debate on Mugabe's succession despite his advanced age and ill-health. Mugabe frequently flies to Singapore for medical treatment.
Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano recently expressed similar sentiments in his address to the 2012 Open Forum conference in Cape Town, South Africa, where he urged former liberation struggle leaders like Mugabe to retire and allow a new generation of leaders to take over. Mugabe and Angola's Eduardo dos Santos are the only remaining founding liberation leaders in southern Africa still in power.
"In my country, you will not find more than three people in cabinet who fought in the liberation struggle," Chissano said. "All the other ministers and their deputies didn't fight any war."
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, who left office after one term, repeatedly urged Mugabe to quit while he was still politically active. Regional leaders have also tried to persuade Mugabe to retire in a dignified way. Another ex-South African president Thabo Mbeki also tried to do the same, while former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan and "Mandela's team of Elders", among others, also made an effort.