A grade three senior high school student stretches during a night self study session at a high school. Picture: Cao Zhengping/VCG via Getty Images
A grade three senior high school student stretches during a night self study session at a high school. Picture: Cao Zhengping/VCG via Getty Images

China’s not-inconsiderable influence in Africa is set to increase next year, when Zambia becomes the fourth country on the continent — after Kenya, Uganda and SA — to introduce Mandarin at its schools.

The Zambian government announced earlier this month that it would roll out Mandarin classes from grades 8 to 12 at its 1,000-plus secondary schools from 2020 — the largest such programme in Africa. It’s a move that the government says is underpinned by commercial considerations: it’s thought the removal of communication and cultural barriers will boost co-operation and trade between the two countries.

According to Zambia’s home affairs ministry, more than 20,000 Chinese nationals live in the country, having invested about $5bn in more than 500 ventures across the mining, manufacturing, agriculture and infrastructure development sectors. Ambassador Li Jie said last month that direct Chinese investment in Zambia had increased by $327m in 2018, and bilateral trade reached $5bn, making Zambia the country’s second-biggest trading partner in Africa after SA.

Mabvuto Sakala, permanent secretary of the higher education ministry, says the government has signed a memorandum of understanding with China’s Confucius Institute — a state-backed organisation that aims to promote Chinese culture around the world. The institute is developing a fast-track teacher training programme at the University of Zambia, and the university is working on a textbook with Hebei University of Economics & Business and the Curriculum Development Centre, which China will likely provide to the government.

Anybody with Chinese as a second language will have an advantage in
communicating around the world
Fred Musonda

"We want to ensure that we have an assured pipeline of trained Chinese language teachers to support the national rollout of Chinese training and assessment," says Sakala — though it’s thought China will also have to supply teachers to complement the government’s efforts.

Fred Musonda, president of the Chingola branch of the Zambia Chamber of Commerce & Industry, sees some benefit in the policy, given China’s growing international influence.

"In the past we used to learn French as a second language in schools, but that never worked for anybody," says Musonda. "This may be different … the Chinese have a stronger influence in the world economy and the population and distribution of Chinese people around the world is much wider than the French … Anybody with Chinese as a second language will have an advantage in communicating around the world."

But the move is not without controversy. There are already concerns around overindebtedness to China and what "debt-trap diplomacy" may mean for Zambians. The Jubilee Debt Campaign estimated Zambian debt to China at the end of 2017 to be $2.64bn, or about 30% of external debt. However, the China-Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in the US put the country’s debt to Chinese lenders at a much higher $6.4bn of a total $8.7bn debt stock.

Late last year xenophobic protests broke out in the Copperbelt town of Kitwe after a rumour circulated that the government had sold the Zambia Forestry & Forest Industries Corp to a Chinese company to service its debt. It came on the heels of similar claims about the national broadcaster and the state-owned electricity utility.

And, though the rumours proved untrue, discomfort around China’s influence remains. Last year it purchased a piece of land in the Chongwe district, ostensibly to be used as a separate cemetery for Chinese nationals. Following a public outcry, the government said the land would be used for a "martyrs’ memorial" for the Chinese nationals who died during the construction of the Tanzania-Zambia railway in the 1970s.

Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

So the move to introduce Mandarin has done little to allay the fears some hold around Chinese domination. Sishuwa Sishuwa, a historian and political analyst at the University of Zambia, labels the Confucius Institute a Trojan horse for Chinese influence.

"The Chinese — who already enjoy considerable presence in the country’s strategic economic sectors … and are erecting monuments on the outskirts of Lusaka for their ‘fallen heroes’ — are now moving to ‘capture’ Zambia’s future, starting at secondary school," he says.

Similarly, John Mwendapole, national spokesperson and deputy secretary-general of the influential Christian Coalition, decries what he calls the government’s lack of consultation, referring to "a foreign invasion of our cultural space, pride and identity". He says: "We are aware that China has an aggressive policy towards world dominance, which is part of their strategic long-term plans, and serves Chinese national interests and not those of Zambia, or Africa at large."

But the Chinese deny such claims, pointing to the presence of other cultural organisations, such as the Alliance Française, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, the American Center, the British Council and the Russian Cultural Centre, all of which look to expand cultural influence.

An official at the Confucius Institute, who asked to remain anonymous due to the organisation’s strict communication rules, insists there’s no sinister motive at work, saying it’s purely about expanding economic co-operation, understanding and partnership between the two countries.

"Chinese is one of the world’s major languages — a global language of the world’s economic giant," the official says. "China has the potential to make a lasting and positive contribution to Zambia, in [terms of] both business and cultural diversity."