Zambia-China: All-weather friends?

Zambia-China: All-weather friends?
  • PublishedMarch 13, 2015

Zambia and China celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations last October. In the early days of contact, the relationship revolved around the politics of liberation and socialism. But in the 21st century, commercial relations are taking centre-stage. Our correspondent in Lusaka, Reginald Ntomba reports.

 Today, when the name of Zambia is mentioned in China, we always have this tie of closeness in our hearts, and we are happy to see that the China-Zambia all-weather friendship founded by the older generation of leaderships of our two countries has taken root and flourished.”

So wrote Yang Youming, China’s Ambassador to Zambia, in the Times of Zambia on 24 October 2014, the 50th anniversary of both Zambian independence and Chinese-Zambian diplomatic relations. While the slightly hyperbolic language masks difficulties in the China-Zambia relationship, it does outline the historical framework both sides view their relationship through.

Two events symbolise this deep relationship: Zambian support for the restoration of China’s seat at the United Nations in 1971 and China building and financing the TAZARA railway. China was a charter member of the United Nations (UN) when that organisation was established in 1945. Four years later, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the Chinese Civil War and founded the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The former government of China, known as the Republic of China (ROC), was forced to relocate to Taiwan. The ROC, however, managed to keep China’s UN membership, in effect excluding the PRC from the organisation until 1971. Zambia helped the PRC agitate for its inclusion in the UN and voted in favour of it in the historic 1971 General Assembly vote. As Yang noted in his Independence Day message: “The soul-touching scene of African representatives celebrating China’s victory with singing and dancing at the United Nations remains an unfading memory in Chinese people’s minds.”

The 1,860-kilometre TAZARA railway that links Tanzania’s largest city and port Dar es Salaam with Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia’s Central Province was built from 1970 to 1975. The railway was entirely concessionally financed by China at a cost of roughly $500 million. It provided a lifeline to the landlocked Zambian economy, which had been severely affected by economic sanctions against neighbouring Rhodesia, whose white minority government had unilaterally declared independence to avoid majority rule.

Proving that this mark of friendship is far from forgotten, Zambia announced last year that it would grant land to the Chinese government to build a memorial to Chinese nationals who died building the railway.

But a memorial is not needed to remind Zambians of the enormous role China plays in their economy. The signs are everywhere. Walk down Lusaka’s Independence Avenue and you’ll see a Chinese-built multi-storey office complex and convention centre, which was a gift to the former ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP) for use as its headquarters. Now it’s in government hands and houses several ministries.

Football fans watch Chipolopolo (Zambia’s national football team) in the Chinese-built Levy Mwanawasa Stadium in Ndola. And the whole country watched Edgar Lungu’s inauguration as president in January in the ultramodern National Heroes Stadium, which was also built with Chinese financing.

Chinese builders and money are providing Zambia with much-needed infrastructure. A Chinese-built $14 million bridge across the vast Luapula River connects Zambia with its neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another monumental project undertaken by a Chinese parastatal is the construction of Zambia’s most expensive road – at a cost of $200 million – that crosses a flood plain in the Western Province (Mongu-Kalabo Road). Once delivered, the government plans to extend the Aviation Industry Corporation of China-built road to Angola to boost trade. These are perhaps the most visible manifestations of a large relationship. Bilateral trade hit $3.81 billion in 2013. China is Zambia’s second-biggest export destination and third-largest source of imports. According to the Chinese Embassy in Lusaka, over 500 Chinese companies operate in Zambia with a cumulative investment of over $3 billion, resulting in 50,000 jobs.

Some of the investments are at the cutting edge of economic development in Zambia and Chinese economic relations in Africa. For example, by April 2012, the Zambia-China Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, a special economic zone in Copperbelt Province developed by China Nonferrous Metal Mining Group (CNMC), had received more than $950 million in accumulated investment, according to China Zhejiang Investment and Trade Symposium.

Trouble in paradise
Despite the big headline figures, not everything is rosy in this relationship of “all-weather friends”. The perception and reality of the use of Chinese workers, Chinese competition with small businesses and Chinese labour practices all strain the friendship.

Last month, for example, Yang paid a courtesy call to Zambia’s new home affairs minister, Davies Mwila. No doubt he was expecting the usual friendly, diplomatic niceties. Instead, Mwila issued a rebuke about Chinese companies bringing in foreign workers and not “follow[ing] the local laws”, according to reporting by the Times of Zambia. This taps into a grievance among some Zambians where despite government policies to promote local labour, Chinese workers are still visible in mines, factories and construction sites. The Chinese government’s stated policy is to abide by local laws and emphasise to Chinese companies the need to create local employment. However, while some of the Chinese companies operating in Zambia are large state-owned entities, it is harder for the Chinese government to control the operations of the plethora of small private enterprises that have sprung up.

Local traders also complain of fierce competition from some of these Chinese businessmen, who often offer lower prices. This competition has forced some Zambians out of business. Some small traders feel insufficiently supported by their government.

But the most volatile and occasionally violent area of dispute is between Zambian workers and Chinese bosses. Industrial disputes between Chinese employers and Zambian workers have at times turned deadly. These troubled industrial relations go beyond simple capital-labour dynamics, as a 2011 report from Human Rights Watch suggested that safety and labour conditions in Chinese mines were worse than in other foreign-owned mines.

A Zambian economist who has advised Chinese businesses told New African that the difference in the “labour philosophy” between the two cultures is the leading cause of labour disputes.

“Without justifying some of the Chinese practices, it is important to understand where the Chinese are coming from. Their belief is that it is better to give as many people as possible a chance to work and pay them something than paying a few people much more. But that labour philosophy obviously clashes with our own which emphasises ‘equal pay for equal work’,” he explained.

Beijing, not Taipei
Taiwan, eager to gain a diplomatic foothold in Zambia, has exploited these difficulties. In 1991, Zambia’s opposition Movement for Multiparty Democracy party (MMD) flirted with recognising Taiwan. However, in government the MMD was strongly pro-PRC. So much so that during Rupiah Banda’s presidency (2008-2011) the party developed strong ties with the CCP.

Similarly, when the current ruling Patriotic Front (PF) was in opposition, it had a strong anti-China sentiment and received funding from Taiwanese businessmen. During the 2006 presidential race, the Patriotic Front candidate Michael Sata commenced preparations for his inauguration and demanded that the Taiwanese ambassador resident in neighbouring Malawi be invited instead of Beijing’s in Lusaka. Sata lost the election, but not before China threatened to cut ties if he had won. In the 2008 race, Sata kept up his staunch anti-Chinese rhetoric.

By the time Sata won the presidency in 2011, he had toned down his anti-Chinese position. While the PF still takes a firmer stance with Chinese investors than its MMD predecessor, it still operates within the friendly rhetoric of “win-win”. Notably, Sata’s first official engagement as president was a meeting with the then-Chinese Ambassador Xu Yuxiao.

The Zambian and Chinese governments are aware of the troubles in their relationship. The Zambian government tries to balance its desire for Chinese investment, expertise and infrastructure with its citizens’ desires for fair competition and decent wages and working conditions. Likewise, the Chinese government wants to receive a good return on its investments but understands that criticisms of some practices could undermine the long-term Chinese presence in the country.

The Zambian-Chinese friendship is becoming more complicated as it shifts from state-to-state to person-to-person. There are now between 20,000 and 100,000 Chinese nationals in Zambia according to estimates based on census data. Many of these are not going home. Some will settle in Zambia for good, bringing up Zambian-educated children with Zambian accents.

Perhaps this shows the options ahead for the “all-weather friendship”. It could become closer and more familial, or it could be businesslike, effective, but never too warm.

Written By
New African

1 Commentaire

  • Is it “all weather friendship” or “all weather exploitation?” The Zambia-China friendship which is present today is not the one entrenched by the founding fathers. Formerly it was a win-win friendship for both Zambia and China. Of late, things have changed to the disadvantage of Zambia. It is win-lose relations whereby Zambia greatly suffers the loss. China robs Zambia even of her local labor opportunities, rendering jobless thousands of Zambians. When we celebrate the 50 years of diplomatic relations, a review of the relations is needed to restore the win-win situation.

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