On the eve of Zambia’s presidential elections last week, one of the most common tropes about the vote was to describe it as a referendum on China. For a long time now, Zambia has been at the leading edge of China’s drive to expand its relations with the continent. Chinese have migrated to Zambia by the thousands, setting themselves up in mining, farming, commerce and small industry.
Although China is a latecomer to Zambia’s decades-old copper industry, it has quickly established itself as an ambitious rival to “traditional” mining partners like Australia and South Africa. As almost everywhere in Africa these days, Chinese contractors are building highways, dams, and other large infrastructure projects. Zambia even boasts two Chinese-built special economic zones, and has recently allowed banking in the Chinese renminbi instead of the kwacha, dollar, or euro to facilitate trade with China.
But these are not the only developments that have set Zambia apart, or at least placed it ahead of the pack in terms of observable trends in its relations with China. Zambia was one of the first African countries where the role of China and of Chinese people in the country became an explicit and potent political issue. During the campaigning for elections in 2006 and 2008, the newly elected leader, Michael Sata, made a sport of baiting China, calling its businesspeople in the country “profiteers,” not investors, and denouncing Chinese for “bringing in their own people to push wheelbarrows instead of hiring local people.”
“Zambia has become a province of China,” Sata thundered in one campaign rally back then. “The Chinese are the most unpopular people in the country because no one trusts them. The Chinaman is coming just to invade and exploit Africa.”