The Controversy Over China’s Presence In Zambia Re-emerged During Covid-19

By  |  June 6, 2020

Murder, debt, perceived racism and Covid-19. Currently, that is the sum of Zambia’s problems. In all four, China is smack in the middle, posing a threat to its influence in the Central African country. Thus, the China-Zambia controversy re-emerges.

The Chinese-Zambia Cataclysm

A lot has happened in the past two months to put these two countries’ relations into a sharper focus. The most pressing China-Zambia narrative, however, is the murder case wherein Zambians attacked a Chinese textile warehouse in Lusaka.

A story ran by CNN reported that three Zambian attackers beat two male and one female Chinese workers to death, after which the entire factory was set ablaze and valuables made away with by the culprits.

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Zambian capital inched close to a boiling point. Before the incident in the textile warehouse, Lusaka’s mayor, Miles Sampa, accused Chinese execs of what he called “slavery reloaded”.

According to him, there were racial divides in the way Chinese nationals in Zambia operate. Zambian authorities have not been able to thread the murder and the anti-Chinese sentiments together. Nevertheless, the ill happenings re-echo the ordeal Chinese face in the country.

There were reports that Chinese businesses were disregarding Zambia’s coronavirus lockdown, either by the continued service to Chinese customer or the “forceful” quarantining Zambian workers within their premises.

Controversy about China’s presence in Zambia has been on for decades. But now, it is more than reemerging, especially as Sampa shut down a Chinese restaurant for denying Zambians service; having Chinese-labelled products in contravention of the law. The mayor also revoked the license of a Chinese barber shop for discrimination Zambian blacks.

Into Debt

Zambia is a highly indebted country when it comes to debt. There is much to go by to come to the conclusion that the International Monetary Fund may not grant it a Covid-19 relief loan because of feared debt unsustainability.

In the midst of it all, China is being mostly blamed for Zambia’s current debt situation. The African nation is one of the countries where China is the biggest single creditor and a major provider of finance for development. It has borrowed heavily in recent years and is now in high risk of debt distress.

The China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) in Washington reveals that Zambia’s accumulated loans from China totalled nearly USD 6.4 Bn at the end of 2017. Should this figure be correct, it translates to Beijing owning about 44 percent of Zambia’s debt, forming a fear that China has too much control over the country.

In the past 2 decades, China became a major finance source of development in developing nations. The role was reinforced by the 2013 launch of China’s grandiose Belt and Road Initiative—a global network of Chinese-financed infrastructure-development projects.

People like the United States national security advisor, John R. Bolton, believes this indiactes that China makes strategic use of debt to hold African nations captive to Beijing’s wishes.

According to critics, a large number of these loans might be unaccounted for in the government official figures. The Zambian government, nevertheless, declared a staggering USD 9.4 Bn of external debt in June 2018, or 34.7 percent of GDP. That’s up from USD 1.9 Bn at the end of 2011, or 8.4 percent of GDP.

Today, China trades more with Zambia than any other African country bar Kenya. In 2018, China-Zambia bilateral trade was in excess of USD 5 Bn. Most countries borrowing heavily from China have histories of IMF bailouts, and unsustainable debt due to new such borrowing has become a main issue in some countries in Central and South Asia. .

The Covid-19 Chapter

Zambia has recorded 1,089 cases of coronavirus, including 7 deaths. But another worry in the Central African country is Chinese doings in the midst of the crisis. Sampa discovered Chinese managers eating dinner at a truck assembly factory where workers were reportedly told to live on-site during the pandemic.

Per the mayor’s findings, Zambian workers were told to not return to their families in order to keep at work without getting infected. In the video, Sampa replied a Chinese boss who confirmed this: “That is illegal. You are holding them hostage. That’s slavery.”

“We found Zambian workers made to sleep in a small container (6 people in one container) with mattresses put on the floor. We followed the Chinese VIPs to their compounds, a walking distance from where the containers are. They said they do it to stop Zambian workers from bringing corona into their premises from their homes. Unacceptable and diabolical to say the least”, Sampa said in a Facebook post.

The China-Zambia ties, before the worst of the pandemic, was believed to become tighter because the former quite assisted the latter in in battling the virus.

Zambia’s Ambassador to China, Winnie N. Chibesakunda, said that “China has always been the one who assists Africa rapidly, not only for Covid-19. To politicize the generous help is not what we really need in helping Africa to save lives during the pandemic.”

Sampa has been reined in by Zambia’s governments concerning his derogatory comments, after which he issued an apology to the Chinese community. Nevertheless, there is no telling what all that’s already happened might cause for the China-Zambia embrace in future.

Featured Image: Pulitzer Center

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