China is accustomed to being welcomed across Africa, by democrats and dictators alike. Recent changes of government, however, have exposed a vein of resentment that could crimp Beijing’s resource safari.
The collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya and South Sudan’s independence have upended the long-standing relationships that China has used to gain advantage over western competitors. Most recently, a change in leadership in the former British colony of Zambia has rattled China’s resource investment ambitions.
In September, Michael Sata swept to power in Zambia following an electoral landslide over Rupiah Banda, the incumbent. The vote also ended the grip on power that Banda’s party, the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), had held over the country since 1991.
The MMD’s lengthy tenure may have lulled China into a false sense of security. The end of the Cold War had introduced a measure of stability to African governments, and rulers have therefore tended to measure their tenures in decades. Even where ballots have been held, they’ve tended to favor those in power. But, as the Arab spring has shown, nothing lasts forever.
The upturning of the ruling class in Zambia, Africa’s largest copper producer, would have come as a particularly nasty shock to China, one of the largest consumers of the metal. Sata’s election platform leaned heavily on anti-Chinese sentiment, which, considering China is the country’s biggest investor, may have seemed a risky gambit to have taken.
But Sata, who once worked as a platform sweeper for British rail, understands his audience. “The Chinese are very crafty. I know the Chinese very well,” he said in an interview with a Danish radio station earlier this year, comments that drew wide attention in the country.
In the run-up to the previous election in 2006, which he lost, Sata referred to Taiwan as a sovereign state. China was reportedly outraged at his comments, and threatened to pull out of the country if he was elected. There were even suggestions at the time in the Zambian media that Beijing was providing covert financing for the MMD’s coffers.
Sata’s campaign this year was only slightly less confrontational. And this time, it worked.
China’s commitment to Zambia is substantial. It has invested around $2 billion in the country, mostly in copper mining projects. The metal is used mainly for electrical cabling, and China’s vast infrastructure programs have made it a voracious consumer of copper.
Under the MMD, Zambia went all-out to woo Chinese state enterprises and ease their access to the country’s wealth. Zambia is home to two of China’s six Special Economic Zones in Africa. Recently the capital, Lusaka, became the first African city to offer Chinese banking allowing the deposit and withdrawal of yuan.
While Banda and his predecessors did everything possible to make the Chinese welcome, ordinary Zambians have come to resent the competition from a flood of expatriates, many of whom compete directly with low-skilled local workers.
Some of Zambia’s markets, particularly the chicken market in downtown Lusaka, are now almost entirely Chinese run.
And, in April this year, Zambian prosecutors declined to pursue charges against two Chinese supervisors who had fired into a crowd of demonstrating miners, injuring 13. The incident, which occurred at the Chinese-owned Collum Coal Mine in 2010, caused widespread anger. The decision to suspend the investigation wasn’t unexpected, but only added to the perception that Chinese companies enjoy a privileged status in the country.