Last election in Zambia, a 12-million-country of austral Africa, gave us new keys to interpret the China’s role in the continent. The new President Michael Sata, sworn few days ago. A former railways porter turned politician, he leads the patriotic front. At 74 he won the election, marking two milestones. Firstly, the incumbent admitted his defeat and peacefully conceded the victory. It is a rare event in Africa’s democracy. Secondly, Sata won the election, campaigning on a strong anti-Chinese position. He brightly exacerbated the popular feelings and cashed on them. He was a strong advocate of the so called “slave labourers” employed by Chinese companies. These, he vehemently campaigned, must adhere to Zambia’s laws and equally share their profits. For the first time in history, China has been the central issue of a popular election.
True, China is very strong in Zambia. Back in 1964, Chinese technicians built an historic railway to connect the country with the Indian Ocean’s port in Tanzania. The construction was critical to the export of copper, the main resource of the African nation. The mineral drew the interest of many mining companies and China, which runs many of them. Now, all of them fear a nationalistic revenge; the introduction of a windfall tax is a clear and present danger. For China, Zambia is an important destination of its overseas investments. It ranks 3rd (with 9% of the total destined to Africa, after South Africa and Nigeria). Beijing both owns and operate mines; in addition it runs many construction sites. China is the only country in the world to export simultaneously capitals, goods, and workforce. This combination makes its intervention very different from the old colonialist cliché. Nevertheless, the Patriotic Front strongly voiced over a brutal statistics – 60% of Zambians live below the poverty line – indirectly pointing the finger to China. In reality, China’s role in Africa is gentler than the former European one; still its contribution to the development of the continent is to be entirely seen. To purchase raw material does not contribute to promote an industrial base.
If a country sells its jewels, it might prosper or live better for some times, but only industry and farming create long-lasting wealth. The virtuous path saving-investment-production-export (that China knows well), apparently is difficult to apply to in Africa. Zambia is growing, but less than expected. Ironically, it is affected by the Dutch Syndrome (a decline in the manufacturing following a lucky discover of raw materials), without being so affluent as The Netherlands are. Thus, mines are the only resource. The international mining companies, not only Chinese, feared a nationalistic approach by the new government. Beijing has started to negotiate to minimize the impact. Beyond the diplomacy, concern is palpable. For the first time, its role is not seen as an help but as a possible invasion or even exploitation