In Africa, an Election Reveals Skepticism of Chinese Involvement

Zambians have voted out president seen as closely aligned with China, which has sent thousands of workers and managers here and to other Sub-Saharan countries

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Chinese President Hu Jintao inspects a Zambian guard of honour on arrival at Lusaka International Airport in Zambia / Reuters

On the eve of Zambia's presidential elections last week, one of the most common tropes about the vote was to describe it as a referendum on China. For a long time now, Zambia has been at the leading edge of China's drive to expand its relations with the continent. Chinese have migrated to Zambia by the thousands, setting themselves up in mining, farming, commerce and small industry.

Although China is a latecomer to Zambia's decades-old copper industry, it has quickly established itself as an ambitious rival to "traditional" mining partners like Australia and South Africa. As almost everywhere in Africa these days, Chinese contractors are building highways, dams, and other large infrastructure projects. Zambia even boasts two Chinese-built special economic zones, and has recently allowed banking in the Chinese renminbi instead of the kwacha, dollar, or euro to facilitate trade with China.

But these are not the only developments that have set Zambia apart, or at least placed it ahead of the pack in terms of observable trends in its relations with China. Zambia was one of the first African countries where the role of China and of Chinese people in the country became an explicit and potent political issue. During the campaigning for elections in 2006 and 2008, the now-newly elected leader, Michael Sata, made a sport of baiting China, calling its businesspeople in the country "profiteers," not investors, and denouncing Chinese for "bringing in their own people to push wheelbarrows instead of hiring local people."

"Zambia has become a province of China," Sata thundered in one campaign rally back then. "The Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa."

Anti-Chinese sentiment was further fueled by violence against workers at Chinese-owned copper mines. In 2006, at one mine, Chinese managers opened fire on workers protesting over back pay and working conditions, injuring several employees. A year earlier, 50 Zambians had been killed at the same mine by an accidental blast at the company's explosives plant. In 2010, at another mine, two Chinese managers were charged with attempted murder after opening fire on a group of employees protesting poor working conditions. Earlier this year, before the election season got underway, the case against the Chinese was quietly dropped, feeding resentment in some circles about China's fast-growing political influence.

The Democracy ReportThe widely employed line about the elections being a referendum on China can only be fully appreciated by spending time, as I did, in Zambia in the weeks prior to the election. China's presence is felt almost everywhere in the country nowadays, from the big Bank of China billboard ads that welcome visitors in Chinese and are among the first sights that any passenger arriving at the Lusaka airport sees, to the city's markets, streets, and shopping malls, where Chinese who were all but invisible just a few years ago now abound. The most politically significant aspect of this presence, though, is the high-profile projects that China rushed to complete in time for the election. These include the newly delivered and fully equipped 159-bed Lusaka General Hospital, and a striking 40,000 seat stadium in Ndola.

During my recent visit, the merits of the hospital were touted in exhausting detail every evening one week on national television, and the stadium has received similarly lavish attention. During a wide-ranging conversation with China's highly articulate ambassador, Zhou Yuxiao, a veteran of several African postings, he spoke proudly of these contributions to Zambia's developments, calling the hospital a "grant".

"Among all nations, I think China is doing the best at getting resources from countries and putting back into those countries," Zhou told me. "Can you find any other country that is doing better?" Several minutes later, when I asked the ambassador what the Americans had contributed to Zambia, he marked a long pause and then fairly sneered, "You employ local people and put them as observers at each and every polling station. What else? I haven't seen any roads being built by them, any schools, any hospitals that really touch people, that can last, that can serve society for long. Maybe training election people is your biggest contribution."

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Howard W. French is the author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa, and is writing a book about the geopolitics of East Asia.

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