In case you haven’t heard, China is taking over Africa. Okay, I don’t really know if that’s true but everyone from the grocery store clerk to UNZA professors to taxi drivers tell me this. The Chinese have done a lot of good things. They’ve built hundreds of miles of (extremely nice) roads, built hospitals, and provided thousands of jobs in impoverished regions. In exchange they’ve been given almost unfettered access to Zambia’s natural resources.
By all accounts President Rupiah Banda (the incumbent in this current election) is tight with the Chinese. He has given them special tax breaks and unprecedented leeway to do as they wish on Zambian soil. For example, this article notes that he’s even allowed a Bank of China to be built where yuan can be withdrawn and deposited — the only bank in all of Africa where one does not have to go through a foreign exchange to get a non-local currency.
In the past presidential challenger Sata has been highly critical of the Chinese, saying that the money they’re making off of the country is benefiting already-rich Zambians and not trickling down to the majority, that the Chinese treat Zambian workers harshly and are exploiting them, and, he’s accused the Chinese of bankrolling Banda’s re-election campaign (see this).
In talks with locals it does seem true that the average worker is not getting the same percentage “trickle-down” as government officials and/or richer Zambians and worse, that Chinese worker management and safety practices have been less than stellar in a few isolated incidents (actually, that’s a huge understatement, see this; obviously, Chinese managers shooting Zambian mine workers is outrageous, though the Chinese claim it was a mistake [see this]). However, the average Zambian certainly must be benefiting from the improved infrastructure in the country, as well as the economic boom which has brought more jobs. In terms of the Chinese allegedly backing Banda’s re-election campaign, my (perhaps naive?) reaction is kind of “so what,” lots of different groups donate to various candidates. But, Sata makes it sound like the Chinese are controlling Banda (and then by extension the country) just because they may be donating to Banda’s campaign (see this). More recently Sata has toned down his anti-Chinese rhetoric significantly and said he would maintain strong ties with them (see this).
Here’s the crux of the situation, as written by Time Magazine, “Incumbent President Rupiah Banda and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy [MMD] believe Zambia needs China to drive its economic growth. Banda’s main rival, Michael Sata, leader of the largest opposition party, Patriotic Front (PF), sees things differently. Chinese investors are ‘taking over’ Zambia by exploiting its natural resources and workforce, he says.”
The anti-Chinese rumblings I hear from ex-pats are that the Chinese lend/donate money with no strings attached. As explained on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation’s (FOCAC) website (a China-based organization), “In contrast to other countries’ aid to Africa, China’s African assistance has no strings attached. In providing aid to Africa, some Western countries often attach their political values and demands, or even attempt to influence the internal and external policies of some of the countries.”
Now, if I were reading this as a completely culture-free Alien just landing from planet KimmX, that position seems reasonable and makes the Western position sound awfully colonial. However, there’s a fine line between “no strings attached” donors and government leaders who are so enamored of large donations that they turn a blind eye to management and safety issues. And here, I need to make it very clear that I have no knowledge of what the case is in Zambia. The newspapers just give opposing viewpoints in alignment with the opposing parties’ views so, as they say, you can’t believe everything you read so I don’t know what’s true. All I’ve personally seen is (a) lots of Chinese, (b) far better roads than there were years previous, and (c) a small improvement in living standards for local Zambians with whom I come into contact (defined as them answering “better” to my question, “are your living standards better off, worse off, or just the same as they were three years ago?).
As of early this morning, the state-owned newspaper is predicting that Banda will win (see this). The independent newspaper sympathetic to Sata is predicting Sata will win (see this). Still too early to tell.