Last week a Chinese manager was killed by an angry group of Zambian protesters. The protesters gathered peacefully (at least initially!) in an attempt to fight back against the meager paychecks received from their Chinese employers. This is one of the few (but not as isolated as one might think) dramatic events in Sino-African relations.
So why did this happen and in what context?
Sino-Zambian history in a minute
Zambia is one of a few select African nations that share a very long history of close ties with the Chinese state. Back in the 1970s, the Chinese state built the TAZARA railway connecting the city port of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) with the town of Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia’s copper belt.
Starting with the third wave of China’s engagement in Africa[i], various Chinese companies have invested heavily in Zambian copper mines. The most notable such investment occurred in 1998, after China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Group bought the Chambishi copper mine (for 20 million US dollars) and invested 100 million dollars in its rehabilitation.
After the mine was opened in 2001, hundreds of locals were hired in the service of the Chinese management. In addition, the Chinese company that invested in Chambishi benefited from the pro-China policy put in place by the then president of Zambia, Mr. Levy Mwanawasa. However, the rosy love story between Chinese managers and Zambian employees crumbled (some would argue, showed its ugly face!) in 2005 after an explosion killed 46 locals.
Following 2005, various local politicians and representatives of the Zambian labor unions have been pressing (or, at times, lobbying) the Chinese state and the Chinese businessmen in the country to increase the safety standards in the mines and to also increase the salaries that local miners get (a meager 65 dollars in 2005, and a meager 175 dollars in 2012).
Among the most vocal anti-Chinese politicians was, surprise, surprise, the current president of the country Michael Sata. Back in 2006, when he was running against Mwanawasa for president, Sata declared: “Zambia is becoming a province – no a district – of China.” If elected, Sata pledged to switch the country’s recognition back to Taiwan. Sata lost the elections but won an overwhelming majority of the votes in the region north of Lusaka (the country’s capital) where the copper mines are located.
But guess what? Since Sata became president in 2011, he is a born-again devoted supporter of the Chinese state and its strategic interests in the country. Halleluiah!!!
The once again betrayed miners
While Sata pledged to work closely with the Chinese due to strategic considerations, the miners working for Chinese businesses in the country continue to suffer (more or less) in silence. Working under daunting and flatly dangerous conditions, the miners have seen very few benefits from their hard-earned, yet meager salaries. Contrary to what the Chinese managers have promises, the living conditions for the thousands of people living in the area have not dramatically improved.
What’s going on in Zambia?
- 1. The miners
When Sata became president last year, the majority of the Zambian miners thought that their lives were about to change. That the man who promised to punish the Chinese businessmen in the country for their mishaps and for the disregard for their employees’ work conditions, will, for sure, deliver.
The recent riots are the direct result of the fact that nothing much has changed since Sata came to office (who didn’t see that coming?) and the fact that Chinese businessmen in the country have failed to increase the salaries and packages of their employees.
People in the mining communities are literally desperate. In an era of soaring inflation, the workers who decided to riot last week against their employers, received a paycheck that was under the minimum wage of US$227.
Imagine working in the dark for 12-14 hours a day. The sun has not yet risen when you get to the mine and has long set when you leave it. And that all that you have to show for all that time is a 5 dollar bill (25000 Zambian kwachas).
- 2. The Chinese businessmen in the country
There is no doubt that Chinese businessmen in the country have responded to Zambian outcries and frustrations over the years. After the regrettable accident in 2005, new safety protocols were put in place, the families of the victims were compensated for their losses (10,000 us dollars per household) , worker’s salaries were increased and many employees were allowed to join labor unions. Chinese companies in the country need to receive credit for that.
The problem is isn’t that the Chinese have not paid attention to local conditions.
In my opinion, the crucial problem Chinese business owners in Zambia are guilty off is realizing that times are slowly changing and that their response to urgent local issues must adapt accordingly. I have no doubt that many of the Chinese businessmen are under the same illusion that the government is behind them the way it was under the leadership of the former president. But make no mistake – Sata might never live up to his empty promises of waging war against the Chinese. Yet at the same time, he’s not going to do anything to help them either. Gone are the days when president Mwanawasa was showing up in public to defend the presence of the Chinese businessmen in the country. The propaganda that was once favoring the Eastern foreigners is all but defunct (though somebody should probably inform the Chinese managers of that reality!).
Worse yet, many Chinese entrepreneurs in the country are currently operating under the wrong premise. They think that Zambians will work, just like their Chinese counte rparts, on meager salaries simply because they don’t have any other option. What they discount is that as foreigners, the local Zambians always factor in the politics of difference that comes with working for people coming from another country. The Chinese, as far as the locals are concerned, are only in the country to exploit the mineral resources and its people. They don’t care for their employers, for the environment or for the local culture.
From these popular beliefs, a crisis of legitimacy and trust has emerged, combined with a very real desperation on behalf of the miners who work so much and earn so little. When Chinese laborers in their won country choose to comply with their work conditions they might very well believe there is no other choice. They might also believe they owe it to their country to work hard so that collectively China could prosper. The Zambians have no allegiance to the Chinese workers in the country – and one could argue, no respect for them either. And why would they? All those benefits their former president was talking about (more jobs, more money,more business, more opportunities) have somehow been lost on the way from Lusaka to the Collum Coal Mine. And since no one seems to care or do something, who are they to take their issue to?
The times are changing, and I have no doubt, the Chinese will change with them. For now, the ignorance of those Chinese capitalists who still cling to the idea that they can do business as usual in Zambia turns the Chinese into an easy target. It makes them a perfect enemy the masses of disfranchised Zambians are slowly rallying against. The Chinese manager who lost his life to the frantic Zambian workers was a victim of opportunity. He represented the empty promises coming from both the Zambian and the Chinese governments. And the miners, fully aware of the lies and the deceit they have been fed needed to react. They wanted to crush the injustice the way they often do with the mosquitoes who claim their blood.
It is unfortunate the Chinese manager who lost his life last week was the one who had to pay so dearly for the popular outrage. But his death was no random accident or unpredictable event as many might think. He was a foretold story, a cry of desperation and disgust coming from a group of people who have just had enough.
[i] First wave: during the presidency of Mao Zedong, China supported African political actors along ideological lines – socialist regimes and liberation movements that were fighting European occupation of the continent.
Second wave: primarily characterized by a withdrawal of China’s economic engagement in Africa, this period (more or less, from the 1976 to 1993) registered the minimum economic engagement between China and African countries due to the fact that China was looking inward, towards fixing it sown problems and lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese from poverty after the disastrous Cultural Revolution.
Third wave, after 1993, is characterized by a new, aggressive interest on behalf of both the Chinese state and Chinese state/non-state companies in investing and trading with African economies, primarily with resource-rich countries. However, whereas the chunk of these investments are in petrol-rich countries (Nigeria, Angola, Sudan, Ghana), Chinese companies can now to be found in virtually every single African countries.