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Resistance growing to Chinese presence in Zambia

Abu-Bakarr Jalloh | Fang Wan
April 9, 2019

Zambia's ties with China are among the longest of all African countries. DW's Abu-Bakarr Jalloh and Fang Wan have been investigating how Zambians feel today, more than half a century after the relationship began.

Sambia Lusaka chinesischer Food Market
Image: DW/Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

Yan Aimi sobs deeply as she walks down an aisle of her small convenience store. Memories of a recent burglary still haunt the Chinese businesswomen, who is based in Zambia's copper mining capital, Kitwe.  

The 42-year-old had previously lived in South Africa. "I heard that the law and order in Zambia was better," she said, looking visibly shaken by her experience.

"They rushed in from this small door and the whole store was plundered," she said.

Yan escaped the attack unscathed, but is still traumatized. "I invested a total of 600,000 yuan (€79,000, $89,000) in this store," she said with tears in her eyes. She claimed the rioters stole around €49,000 worth of items from her store. 

The looting in Yan's store is a reflection of growing anti-China sentiment in Zambia, much of it fanned by a polarized media.  Local tabloids carry headlines such as: "China has controlled our economic lifeline." Or "Chinese have deprived us of our jobs and livelihood." Or "They do not respect us, they only want to make money." 

Such sentiments can also be heard at market places and on the streets.

Map of Zambia

Chinese state-controlled firms are flourishing in Zambia, winning almost every mega government project, funded not coincidentally by Beijing. Airports, hydropower stations, highways and others — such multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects have become the new signature of China in Zambia.

Zambia is an important part of China's "One Belt, One Road" program. Ordinary Chinese describe the program as dasabi, a Mandarin term which can be roughly translated as "throwing money around". Beijing, however, sees it as its way of assisting developing countries, especially in Africa. Due to its negative connotations, dasabi is only used in secret.

Read more: Africa's debt crises not the fault of creditors alone

However, since this is accompanied by a high influx of Chinese citizens, many Zambians are now responding with a resounding 'no' to these seeming development projects.

White elephant projects

Details of China's dasabi in Zambia are hard to come by. What is known often comes from previous government insiders who, for various reasons, have been relieved of their posts. Among them is former Minister of Information and Broadcasting Chishimba Kambwili.

Kambwili, who was sacked in 2016 and expelled from the ruling  party in 2017, told DW he was "very critical about the government's borrowing, especially from China."

"Chinese loans often don't even go to Zambian accounts. They choose the contractor from China, the contractor is paid in China, but it reflects in our books as a loan from China," he said.

Read more: China's money, China's blue helmets for Africa

Kambwili, as well as labor consultant John Musonda, told DW that contracts for Chinese-funded construction and infrastructure projects are almost always awarded to Beijing-backed firms.   

Zambians question the quality and longevity of Chinese-built infrastructure. In 2011, a huge part of the Lusaka-Chirundu road, which was constructed by China Henan, was swept away by heavy rains shortly after it was completed. 

A billboard advertizing the Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway project
The $1.2 billion Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway project is widely seen as too expensiveImage: DW/A. Jalloh

Others also query the usefulness of projects such as the two new stadiums that were funded and built by China in the capital Lusaka and in Ndola, a regional capital in the north of the country. Locals call them 'white elephants'  and consider them to be expensive and impractical.

James Lukuku, who took to the streets last September in a protest against Chinese investment, told DW that Zambia does not need such flashy projects. The campaign slogan of his newly formed Republican Progressive Party is "Say No to China."

What started as a one-man show has gained significant momentum on- and offline. Lukuku's Twitter campaign #SayNoToChina trends every time China makes it to the front pages of local newspapers. His rallies are attended by thousands, mostly disgruntled youngsters who feel left out of President Edgar Lungu's development agenda.

Lukuku says Chinese projects have contributed to the high level of corruption in Zambia. Many of his fellow countrymen, who are skeptical about the integrity of their own leaders, believe that much of the Chinese money lands in private pockets. Independent analysts back this up, saying that the transparency of Chinese loans is "very opaque," as Laura Miti, head of the non-governmental organization Alliance for Community Action, puts it.

"We don't know what the conditions are. It's 'no questions asked' debt. If much of it goes to building mansions, nobody cares. In the West, even if the government wants to hide something, there is still the civil society to ask questions. In China, this information is nowhere to be found," Miti said.

Fear and resentment

There is no accurate figure of the number of Chinese nationals now living in Zambia. According to 2014 data from the Zambian home affairs ministry, the total number of Chinese in the country was then around 20,000. The late Zambian president Michael Sata claimed, when running for election in 2006, that 80,000 Chinese residents were "infesting" the country. Some researchers put the current figure at around 100,000. Many ordinary Zambians say they feel as if there are at least a million Chinese living in their country.

The late Zambian president Michael Sata in a grey suit
The late Michael Sata used the anti-China card in his 2006 presidential election campaignImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Meng Chenguang

"It's not just ZESCO [the national power provider] that they want, the Chinese are also messing with our Katundu (a slang word for girls)." Such provocative statements are frequent in local newspapers, since word got out that a Chinese firm had taken control of the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation. One can almost smell the fear and resentment in mining cities like Kitwe, which saw two major riots against Chinese nationals in late 2018. In addition to worrying about the loss of state assets and abuse of their women, many Zambians fear their jobs are being taken away by Chinese citizens.

According to labor consultant Musonda, there are Chinese citizens in the private sectors and others who are employed by Chinese state-owned enterprises.

A close-up of a Zambian newspaper page with an article in Mandarin
The state-owned Times of Zambia published an article in MandarinImage: twitter/KennedyGondwe

The few Chinese expats who cross the cultural boundary are often local business owners. Some of these businessmen trade in illegal businesses – including mobile phones.     

According to current regulations, foreigners can deal in wholesale but not in retail. The authorities are being criticized for not doing enough to prevent this.

But many ordinary Chinese citizens also come on their own and enter Zambia's non-traditional investment areas like retail. While some open small shops on street corners, others sell, for instance, chicken or roast maize. This has caused further dissatisfaction in Zambian society. 

"As a country you need to have a system to regulate this kind of influx and to protect the domestic private sector, small business, where you don't expect the investment coming," said Kryticous Patrick Nshindano, executive director of the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction Zambia. 

Nshindano believes some sectors should be reserved for locals and his opinion resonates among ordinary Zambians. Some Lusaka residents who have expressed support for Chinese development projects are now concerned about possible job losses caused by Chinese activity in the retail sector.

As a young man at a mobile phone store in Lusaka put it: "You cannot just come here and flood the market."