This week three high profile news stories have placed China’s presence in Zambia under scrutiny. First, two Chinese nationals were arrested under suspicion of providing illegal military training to a Zambian security firm. Second, a popular Kenyan lawyer due to speak on the relations between China and Africa was deported at the border. Third, the state-owned newspaper Times of Zambia ran an article in Mandarin, to much domestic ire.
In some respects, China’s relationship with Zambia is typical of the superpower’s ever growing ties with Africa. On one level there is the state-orchestrated plan to find outlets for Chinese goods and capital while gaining access to Africa’s abundant natural resources. Significant Chinese investment arrived in Zambia in the 1990s, when Zambia’s prolific copper mines were privatized. Chinese firms were simultaneously pulled by the bargain asking price (a consequence of copper’s depressed value and Zambia’s financial desperation) and pushed by Beijing’s aptly named “go out” policy, which induced businesses to seek profits abroad.
Furthermore, it is a reasonable assumption that it is Zambia’s world-leading copper reserves that have at least in part motivated Beijing’s massive wave of lending to Zambia. It has been argued that the same hunger for increasingly scarce and increasingly valuable resources, which also includes elements like lithium, that has pushed Beijing to develop its links with both Africa and Southern America. Beijing in contrast constructs these relationships as a “win-win” partnership among developing nations – a rhetorical line Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front has been eager to adopt.
Accompanying this official push has been a wave of uncoordinated Chinese immigration to Zambia, as to Africa more broadly. Chinese nationals seeking economic opportunity in a less competitive environment began to arrive in the early 1990s. Today at least 100,000 Chinese are living in Zambia, some barely scraping by, others doing very well in the less saturated Zambian economy.
China’s presence in Africa has been unfairly vilified by Western journalists. Ostensible worries about predatory loan practices are hard to disentangle from worries about the displacement of the West’s previously hegemonic position on the continent. What Western observers often overlook is the substantial support China provides for upskilling and education efforts or China’s support substantial support for security and peacebuilding efforts on the continent.
In Zambia, however, this criticism is unusually apt. The China Africa Research Initiative finds that in most African nations, contrary to Western criticism, Chinese loans are not the most significant contributor to a high risk of debt distress. Other factors, like conflict or environmental change, or debt to other creditors, in the West or the Middle East, were found to be more impactful. Zambia, along with the Congo and Djibouti, is the exception to this rule. At the end of 2017, $6.4 billion of Zambia’s unsustainable $8.7 billion debt was owed to Chinese creditors. It is rumored that if Zambia defaults on its debt it risks losing substantial public assets, like the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, provided as security in return for Chinese financial aid. China’s actions in Djibouti, and their seizure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, show them willing to make good on these claims.
Zambia also suffers under the negligent business practices of individual Chinese employers. The explosion at a Chambishi explosives factory, killing 51, the largest industrial disaster in Zambian history, or the shooting of 11 Zambian miners by Chinese managers at the Collum Coal mine are emblematic examples. More generally, complaints about poor pay, inadequate work wear, and (particularly in Chinese owned copper mines) dangerous working conditions abound. A 2011 report by Human Rights Watch vindicated these complaints, finding that safety and labor conditions at Chinese mines were substantially worse than those at other foreign-owned mines.
What is true of China’s relationship with Zambia is not necessarily true of China’s relationship with Africa as a whole. While the processes that brought Chinese influence to Zambia are familiar, the largely negative impact of this influence is not; it may well be the case that in other nations Beijing’s much trumpeted “win-win” policy is more apt. In Zambia, however, increasing scrutiny of the Chinese presence there is welcome and, for the welfare of the Zambian people, highly necessary.
Arran Elcoate is a post-graduate researcher at Bristol University.