Zambian Hopeful Takes a Swing at China
Presidential Challenger Stirs Resentment at Asian Power’s Growing Influence in Africa

By Joseph J. Schatz
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 25, 2006; A16

LUSAKA, Zambia — Making a living is never easy in Kamwala, the cramped, grimy but bustling marketplace in downtown Lusaka, where Nally, a middle-aged mother of five, has been selling clothes out of a small wooden stall for the past 15 years.

But things took a turn for the worse, she said, when the Chinese moved in down the block a few years ago.

Chinese retailers operating in Kamwala have undercut her prices and lured away her customers, Nally said, holding up a pair of women’s underwear that she would normally try to sell for 10,000 kwacha, or about $2.55.

“They can sell it for five or four” thousand kwacha, said Nally, who spoke on condition that only her first name be used because of concern about harassment by political operatives. “In the past years we were doing fine, but since the Chinese have come in, we were affected.”

In the run-up to presidential elections this Thursday, Nally said she has listened with interest to one candidate in particular: Michael Sata, the man at the heart of an election-year skirmish that has drawn attention to China’s growing economic and political clout in Africa, and the resentment it has caused among some Africans.

Mirroring its economic incursions into much of the rest of Africa, China has emerged in recent years as a significant presence in the Zambian economy, particularly in the copper industry — Zambia’s economic lifeblood — but also in other sectors, including textiles, road construction and retail.

Sata, a former cabinet minister and the leading challenger to President Levy Mwanawasa, has called the Chinese profiteers, not investors, in a country where unemployment is about 50 percent and more than 73 percent of people live in poverty.

Sata has lambasted Chinese-run businesses, accusing them of neglecting the safety of Zambian workers, and threatened to run “bogus” Chinese investors out of the country. He has suggested that, if elected, he would recognize the independence of Taiwan, which China regards as a province that must return to the mainland’s rule.

“Foreign relations must benefit all concerned. It must not be . . . one-way traffic,” Sata said on privately owned Radio Phoenix this month. “Chinese investment has not added any value to the people of Zambia.”

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said that China might sever diplomatic ties with Zambia if Sata became president and recognized Taiwan. The ambassador also raised the specter of a halt in Chinese investment.

The debate has been full of crude politics and xenophobia, but it has also served as an illustration of China’s economic involvement in Africa giving way to political influence.

“China is a big player everywhere. . . . It’s one of the biggest investors in Zambia,” said Neo Simutanyi, a political analyst at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, a public policy organization in Lusaka.

Simutanyi added that the Chinese threat was “undiplomatic” in its bias toward Mwanawasa’s government, which has benefited from Chinese aid and loans. “We are indebted to China for a very, very long time to come.”

While Sata’s overall support remains uncertain going into the final days of the campaign, his anti-China rhetoric has struck a chord with some in this nation of 11.5 million. The issue — and the topic of foreign investors — has dominated newspaper headlines, radio shows and political discussions, drawing cheers from many lower-paid Zambians, including taxi drivers, shop workers and security guards, and sparking debate even among Sata’s more middle-class detractors.

“The issue of China and chasing foreigners is actually a vote winner in the urban areas,” Simutanyi said.

The China issue, and a discussion about Sata’s political alliance with former president Frederick Chiluba, whom the ruling government has pursued on corruption charges, has overshadowed other campaign issues, including education and the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Mwanawasa, elected with only 29 percent of the vote in 2001, is seeking reelection on a record of market-oriented economic policies and anti-corruption efforts that has pleased the foreign investors and donors that Zambia relies upon heavily.

Sata, a veteran politician nicknamed “King Cobra,” has a reputation for getting things done. Taxi drivers routinely point out a major bridge on Lusaka’s busy Great East Road as Sata’s handiwork and as an illustration of his ability to cut through red tape as a government minister. But critics dismiss him as a loudmouth, and others fear he would be a potentially reckless leader.

Political analysts say Sata is exploiting an undercurrent of resentment against Chinese involvement in Zambia and targeting poor, less educated Zambians, especially those working in mines or markets such as Kamwala.

“Mr. Sata is a very shrewd political animal. . . . He is a demagogue,” said Fred Mutesa, a development studies professor at the University of Zambia. “The issue of investors in Zambia has generated a lot of controversy, mainly because of poor labor laws.”

China has long been involved in Zambia. In the early 1970s, the Chinese government built a 1,155-mile-long railway linking landlocked Zambia to the port city of Dar es Salaam in neighboring Tanzania. In recent years, China has become an even more important player in Zambia’s economy as it invests throughout Africa to feed its growing resource and energy needs.

Zambia is the world’s 11th-largest copper producer, and China has sunk millions of dollars into mines, helping to revive operations after a decline during the mid-1990s. China has helped restart some Zambian textile mills, and Chinese contractors have aided road construction.

These projects have employed more than 10,000 Zambians, and Chinese investment in Zambia has topped $300 million, according to the Chinese Embassy.

But Chinese-owned copper mines are known for low pay and hazardous practices. In 2005, 51 Zambian workers died in an explosion at the Chambishi mine.

“We can appreciate investment, we can appreciate them employing people, but a lot needs to be done in terms of the conditions of service. . . . They need to do a lot in terms of the safety of the workers,” said Rayford Mbulu, president of the Mineworkers Union of Zambia.

An influx of Chinese traders — bringing with them inexpensive Asian-made products — has only added to the resentment. Chinese and Lebanese retailers have moved into rebuilt shops in Kamwala, where the rent is too steep for some Zambian entrepreneurs.

At the same time, many Zambians have benefited from the availability of cheaper Chinese goods — a source of frustration to shop owners who contend that Chinese products are of inferior quality.

Sata blames the Chinese for mining accidents and says Chinese immigrants should not be competing with Zambian retailers.

“The Chinese themselves . . . decide the conversation,” Sata said in the Sept. 5 interview. “We want investors — local investors, foreign investors — who add value. . . . We are not going to condone fake, exploiter investors.”

Many Zambians say that while China should be forced to play by the rules, Zambia simply cannot afford to close its doors.

“You can’t say we are going to chase the investors — it can’t be done. We need investment,” said Edsson Mumba, who sells pants in another shop in the Kamwala market. “Politics is politics. Business is business.”

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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