Journalist Louise Redvers ran a story called “China’s stake in Zambia’s election” for BBC International. The article itself is pretty slim when it comes to concrete evidence – it’s primarily based on rumors and accusations coming from various competing politicians.
The background story of China’s involvement in Zambia is fairly straightforward. Back in the 1970s, the country benefited from Chinese foreign aid through the construction of the TAZARA railway, connecting the Tanzanian sea port of Dar es Salaam with Zambia’s Copper belt. Though a technological success, the railway never proved profitable, with many local entrepreneurs along the route preferring the traditional, colonial-based system of using the imperial roads as means of transportation for their merchandize. But ideologically, the construction of the railway was a true success story.
In the last ten years, however, China’s interests in the country rose to unprecedented levels. Redvers gives a figure which exemplifies the rapid increase in trade between the two countries. Trade between the two countries grew from 60 million dollars in 2000 to 2.8 billion dollars last year.
China’s main economic interests in the country follow the same pattern as their British counterpart during colonialism – investing in copper, cobalt and nikel mines – though the nature of the investment is quite different. Like in other parts of Africa, Chinese entrepreneurs are investing in the mines, while the Chinese government offers low-interest loans for infrastructural programs which are subsequently built by Chinese workers.
Now, the big fuss – and the main point of the article – is the allegation that the Chinese government is financially backing the incumbent presidential candidate Rupiah Banda and his party the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in the upcoming elections against the opposition leader Michael Sata and his party, the Patriotic Front. If you may recall, four years ago, during the first confrontation between the two Zambian politicians, Sata received a stunning support from voters in the Cobalt Belt due to his anti-Chinese remarks. At the time, Sata lost the elections by only 35,000 votes.
That being said, a lot has changed in the Chinese camp and its policy towards Zambian workers. Salaries have gone up, unions were brought to the negotiation table and deals have been struck to step up the salaries and the quality of life for the miners working for Chinese companies. Has the situation improved for workers? Yes, to some degree. Is it perfect? Not by a long shot.
Now the article obliquely suggests the Chinese are interfering in Zambian affairs. That might be the case. But what pisses me off is the racist undertones of articles like this, and the complete disregard for a historical understanding of engagements between African statesmen and their foreign counterparts. Africa has a long history of convoluted affairs, with the United States, Britain, France and Russia constantly interfering in local affairs. The entire Cold War was an ideological battle between the two blocks with both the US and Russia competing for African leaders’ allegiance to them. As such, if China is backing one candidate over another, it does so by following, once again, the pattern that emerged back in the ‘60s and one which unfortunately continues to date. But when an article that this, mischievously entitled “China’s stake in Zambia’s election”, is published, uninformed readers tend to take it as is – aka China is this menacing power doing all these immoral things to Africa. In fact, it’s business as usual, but who cares, right?
Another issue that disgusts me with an article like this is the second faulty presumption – that China’s efforts are met with open arms by African leaders. In fact, during the Cold War and in the aftermath, African leaders were more often than now very astutely playing the international political game by constantly switching sides and using the world rivals in their pursuits for financial support from other developed countries and International Organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank.
At the same time, naturally, there were also leaders who indeed profiteered from one side by amassing impressive wealth at the expense of their own people (who can forget Mobutu Sese Seko for example).
However, by in large, African politicians, on all sides of the political spectrum, reached out to international actors in an attempt to support their political bids. Most likely, Sata is doing the same and if he isn’t, probably he is not the right man for the job. After all, these types of strategic partnerships are quintessential to African and world leadership. Once again, singularizing China is detrimental of a practice that is endemic in world politics. When the businessmen of a country invest in another foreign nation, they put pressure on their own governments asking them to safeguard their interests. One certainly doesn’t have to approve of this practice. But having yet another panic attack about Chinese politicians probably engaging in this practice is somewhat immature and shortsighted. Why? Because I bet no matter who wins the elections, China will remain a major player in the country.
The Chinese are there to stay.
Politicians, in Africa or elsewhere are transitory.