ONLY during an explorative stint in Zambia can one begin to understand that general narratives about the Chinese can often be fairly off-key. Zambia, together with Tanzania, is arguably the African country with the longest ties to Beijing.
This writer recently travelled north to Ndola in the heartland of the Copperbelt region - using a Chinese-built bus. The smooth tarmac was built by the Chinese, as were the major freight rail lines serving the region.
Their end destination, the copper mines that contribute up to 70% of Zambia’s export earnings, are mostly run by the Chinese.
A lot of the reporting around China’s activities in Africa have centred around resource grabs. However, a lot of these accounts also ignore the history of country-specific bilateral relations, preferring to cocoon them into one narrative.
Zambia’s relations with China can be traced to the immediate post-colonial period, and were nurtured by its founding leader Kenneth Kaunda.
The story is told of how Zambia’s plans for the Kapiri Mposhi railway line to Tanzania were rejected as unfeasible by the West. But China, once contacted by
Tanzania, Zambia back China
Kaunda, agreed to take up the project, providing great economic relief from liberation-linked sanctions by a South Africa that was then still under apartheid.
At a time when few African delegations would even want to sit next to the communists from Peking (no one used the Chinese-preferred Beijing those days), Zambia and Tanzania were also instrumental in pushing for the allocation of a United Nations seat to China instead of Taiwan, and in other diplomatic pushes fronted by Beijing.
China has since then been ever present in Zambia, in nearly all sectors of the economy—real estate, construction, industry, retail, although it is only in the last 15 years that it has ramped up investment, coinciding with the country’s “Going Out” policy.
And crucially, most Zambians largely appreciate the work done by the Asians, even if labour relations grouses have showed up frequently. The feeling is that issues of poor pay and low safety standards are more alarmingly reported because they involve the Chinese, who are perceived as new economic neo-colonisers.
Often ignored is that Africans are just as bound to treat their workers the same way, only with less sensationalised reporting. Indeed a recent report found that on most labor-related and environmental dimensions, Chinese mines perform on-par with industry averages.
In Chad the government has in the recent past pulled licences over environmental concerns by Chinese oil companies. There was indication that if Africans or anyone else had been at the head of these operations things would have been any different.
Many observers agree that there is improvement needed on corporate governance—by everyone, not the Chinese only.
Good for whipping up emotion
However, the Chinese are often used by, especially, opposition and populist politicians to whip up emotions, particularly at election time, at the expense of the bigger picture. Zambia’s president Michael Sata for example was a sharp critic of the Chinese in his country, when in the opposition.
But on rising to power it seems he was able to visualise their contributution to the Zambian economy, and has since then cut a more measured tone.
Former president Kaunda for his part told Mail & Guardian Africa unequivocally that Chinese investment in his country has been positive.
That said, even China’s supporters acknowledge the Asians are not blameless—their clientelist approach and exclusive aggregation to the detriment of other companies are well known.
But, as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and several other voices on the continent have noted, Africa invites them, because it knows there are things they are currently much better at than us—comparative advantage and ease of financing coming first to mind. It would do well, as more and more Africans now argue, to learn from them and from other groups too —the Americans, Turks, Japanese.
And if Zambians feel the Chinese contribution outweighs the grievances, as it so obviously does, who are we not to agree with them? The more urgent question should be about finding a balance that works for everyone—no one claims it has to be equal.
Emphasis must be on skills transfer. The adage goes that if you teach a man how to fish you help him better than feeding him for the day. Sino-African relations cannot be any different.
African countries, no doubt, must continue to forge their own development path—that has remained the meaning of sovereignty. Talk of a new scramble for Africa is only an oversimplistic argument that, on the ground, does not translate into changed lives for the continent’s citizens.