“WE WANT the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return,” said the populist Michael Sata. “They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took good care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilisation…at least Western capitalism has a human face; the Chinese are only out to exploit us.”
But that was in 2007, when Mr Sata, as leader of the Patriotic Front, then Zambia’s main opposition party, was eager to tap into growing resentment against Chinese investors in the copper-rich former British colony. He accused them of paying slave wages, of flouting basic safety and environmental standards, and of corrupting African leaders across the continent with their multi-billion dollar “no-strings-attached” deals. China threatened to break off relations with Zambia should Mr Sata ever be elected.
Today, with the 74-year-old as president, the tone has changed, on both sides. China is now the world’s biggest consumer of copper, Zambia’s chief export. As usual, it is ready to work with whoever is in power. Mr Sata’s first official appointment after his inauguration on September 23rd was with China’s urbane ambassador, Zhou Yuxiao, who delivered a letter of congratulation from his own president, Hu Jintao. Though Mr Sata repeated his complaints about the Chinese paying low wages and taking jobs Zambians could do, he was more welcoming than previously.
He is too savvy a politician not to realise how much this impoverished country of 13m people needs China’s cash. Over the past decade, the Chinese have invested over $2 billion in Zambia, the GDP of which is only $16 billion. More than half of that came in last year. And China is committed to pouring in billions more. There are now about 300 Chinese companies in Zambia, most of them privately owned, employing around 25,000 locals. Standards differ: some companies treat their workers badly, but most of the big state-owned companies genuinely seek to respect local labour laws.
“We are learning,” says Mr Zhou, with an apologetic smile. In the past, he admits, mistakes were made. An explosion at a Chinese explosives plant in 2005, which killed 51 Zambian workers, and last year’s shooting of protesting Zambian miners by Chinese managers at the Collum coal mine, wounding 11, certainly tarnished China’s image.
The Chinese are exasperated by the way in which they have been singled out for criticism, particularly in the Western press. Mr Zhou says this is mainly due to Western fears of China’s economic and political resurgence. But cultural and linguistic barriers also play a role. The Chinese, most of whom do not speak English, tend to be reserved, to live separately in compounds behind high security walls and to go straight home after work rather than prop up the bar with the locals. Generally hard-working, disciplined and dedicated to getting the job done, they are often puzzled by what they see as the Zambians’ often lackadaisical attitude to life.