Picture: 123RF/luzitanija
Picture: 123RF/luzitanija

Zambia has long prided itself on the stability and hospitality it offers. It was home to SA freedom fighters during apartheid; former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and former Namibian president Sam Nujoma lived there before their countries gained independence; and Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa studied law at the University of Zambia.

This hospitality has drawn the attention of China, which has developed strong ties with Zambia. According to the Zambian ministry of home affairs, the more than 20,000 Chinese people who now live in the country have invested about $5bn in more than 280 business enterprises in mining, manufacturing, agriculture, infrastructure development and resource extraction.

However, there’s a popular perception that Chinese involvement in the economy has come at the expense of Zambians. Xenophobic protests against Chinese nationals broke out in the Copperbelt city of Kitwe this month. Hundreds of people rioted after a rumour circulated that the government had sold the Zambia Forestry & Forest Industries Corp (Zaffico), which manages commercial plantations, to a Chinese company. Property was destroyed and more than 100 people were arrested, police say.

The government has denied the sale, saying instead that it plans to list the parastatal on the Lusaka Stock Exchange to enable citizens to buy shares. But the rumour follows similar claims: last year it was reported that a Chinese company had taken a controlling stake in the Zambian National Broadcasting Corp (ZNBC); and in September Africa Confidential reported that the government was in talks with a Chinese company to take over the power utility, Zesco, to offset debt.

The government has denied all these claims. But the country’s level of indebtedness is concerning. Bloomberg reported that external debt rose from $8.7bn at the end of last year to $9.1bn in February — about a third of GDP. The China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University attributes at least $6.4bn of this to loans from Chinese firms.

The issue has become something of a political football. In the wake of the riots, authorities interrogated opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, accusing him of fomenting xenophobic sentiment by spreading the Zaffico rumour on radio.

On the day he appeared at Ndola Central police station, 18 people were arrested and charged with conduct likely to breach the peace.

Chinese contractors in the Copperbelt province instructed their staff not to report for work for fear of a repeat of events. An FM check of road construction sites in the Copperbelt town of Chingola found that all work had come to a standstill, with only guards protecting some equipment and materials.

Chinese ambassador Li Jie is said to have told President Edgar Lungu that an unprecedented number of Chinese nationals have left Zambia for an extended holiday until the situation has settled. Some have closed their businesses and others have scaled down their operations.

Presidential spokesperson Amos Chanda said last week: "China was extremely offended and felt greatly let down by acts of xenophobic attacks that are being targeted at their citizens as a result of reckless statements from some political circles.

"[Li] said they have not bought Zaffico, that they have not bought ZNBC, that they have not bought Zesco — that they have not bought any state enterprises in this country. Rather, they are in partnerships [and doing contracts] with different Zambian entities."

Zambians, however, are concerned that the sale of an entity such as Zaffico would result in job losses and poor conditions of service for those remaining in the parastatal’s employ.

"As a worker, you know what time to report for work, but you don’t know when you are going to knock off because the Chinese set targets for each day," says an employee of the Aviation Industry Corp of China in Chingola. "No-one goes home until the target is completed. So we go home as late as 9pm or 10pm sometimes. But it hurts that they don’t give you overtime if you work long hours.

"They pay almost everyone the same salaries. For them it doesn’t matter if you are a driver or a bricklayer. They don’t like people with high academic qualifications because they don’t want to pay high salaries … What they do is they just teach you what they want you to be doing and if they see that you know, they employ you."

Not everyone sees it this way. Poultry farmer Peter Chungu has encountered Chinese companies in the poultry sector. He says the Chinese have improved thousands of people’s lives through job creation. "Many of their employees have been able to look after families, take children to school and survive every day because of the Chinese," he says. "If they go, many would lose our jobs and families would suffer. What we get from the Chinese is better than nothing and we are happy that they have given us employment. So politicians should be careful with what they say about them."

Hichilema, for his part, refuses to be intimidated. "We will continue speaking for our country," he said after his interrogation. "We will continue speaking for the oppressed.

"We’ll continue speaking against poverty … We will continue speaking against the corrupt and their insatiable appetite to sell our country’s strategic assets."