BEIJING: As a couple of prominent African nations prepare to go into elections in the current year, media platforms across the globe have been flooded with content on Chinese attempts to influence Zambian elections. Scholars of geopolitics and political communication have pointed out the threats emerging from Chinese influence in Zambian elections and consider them as attempts to sabotage the popular anti-China movement in the country, led by the Zambian youth.
In fact, Chinese totalitarianism has been a hot political issue in Zambia for over a decade and a half and its root lies in the movement launched by former President Michael Sata. Since his first presidential run-up in 2006, Sata attacked China for disturbing and disordering the Zambian society by paying ‘slave wages’, defying safety norms for workers, degrading environment, and corrupting its leaders, besides creating a barrage of distress. He also argued that China is not only corrupting the Zambian leaders, but leaders across Africa. During his speeches, he also committed to decouple his country’s relations with China and nullify the deals with the country, if elected to power.
The popular hero of the working class was not engendered accidently, rather, the burgeoning Chinese tyranny and oppression of the Zambians gave rise to the new leader. A trade unionist himself, Michael Sata dedicated his entire life for the sufferings of the mineworkers in Zambia-of which a greater portion comprised of those working in the copper mines controlled by the Chinese companies, woefully treated by the Chinese employers.
The degree of Chinese brutalities with Zambian mineworkers can be gauged by the several shooting incidents wherein the Chinese mine owners used to shoot Zambian mine workers, many a time at a point-blank range. In one of such incidents, five Zambian mineworkers were shot at by Chinese managers during a stand-off at China owned Chambishi mine in 2005. Similarly, in 2010, two Chinese supervisor of the China-owned company ‘Collum Coal Mines’ shots, 13 coalminers, for rasing their voices against the non-payments of their salaries.
Unfortunately, the Chinese managers succeeded in burrying the case down by briberies and pay-off the authorities. Later in the same year, a miner working at a mine owned by the same company died in the police detention, possibly by the police torture. Locals belived that he was arrested on the basis of complaints by one of his mine managers and tortured due to pressure exerted by the company. The dropping off charges from the supervisors by the ruling dispensation – the government of Rupiah Banda, was seen as a cowardly act, fuelling popular discontent against the Chinese influence as well as the then ruling government.
Sata was quick to rise against the Chinese despotism and launched a powerful campaign against the country and its influence in Zambia. Public in massive numbers joined him in his battle against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He attacked the CCP for funding the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) and declared to “kick out” the Chinese companies. His such thundering statements earned him the titled of the ‘King Cobra’.
China, which is recognised in the world for its covert influence operations, publicly made a political statement in during Zambian elections and threatened of pulling out all Chinese investments from the country in case Sata rose to power- all due to the fear of the Zambian leader! However, these blackmails were not powerful enough to bow him down and he won the elections in 2011 by gaining the popular vote of the Zambians-a testament of the citizens to chase away the Chinese from their homeland. The tuling MMD also spent massively to please voters through freebies, allegedly sponsored by China.
The impact of his victory brought along an instantaneous impact in lives of Zambian workers. Horrified by victory of the new President, Chinese mining companies gave a wage raise to their staffers within a few says of Sata’s win-even within less than a month. The magnitude of Sata’s terror amongst the Chinese can be assessed with Chambishi Copper Mine handed as a compensation for working for the same duration. According to the local media reports, Hedges Mwaba, a worker working for the companies received two different cheques- a cheque of $600 before Sata’s victory, which was replaced with the one valuing $1000 after he won. Zambian labourers working
in China-owned mines had revealed that Chinese companies had prepared to give a lump sum hike of 85 percent to workers in case Sata got elected.
On his very first day at office, Sata summoned the Chinese ambassador Zhou Yuxiao and cautioned him that Chinese companies must respect labour rights, abide by minimum wages, and adhere to Zambian labour laws. The Chinese diplomat, in his response, assured to comply with Zambian laws and protect labour rights of its workers and promised, “It is my job to make sure that Chinese companies follow the law”.
Widely famed for his visionary thoughts and nuanced position on geopolitical issues, Sata saw China’s emerging influence as a more subtle form of global economic imperialism. Having expressed his concerns on Chinese colonial designs, he once commented in one of his interviews of May 2010 – “the Chinese are scattering all over the world, but there is no such thing as Chinese investment, as such. What we’re seeing is Chinese parastatals and government interests, and they are corrupting our leaders.”
Regarding colonial aspirations of China regarding his country, he explicitly commented in one of his campaign rallies that “Zambia has become a province of China”. During the same rally, he added, “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.” His words are like sermons for countries like Pakistan, which are over-optimistic regarding the Chinese investments and debts.
Besides limiting Chinese influence at the domestic front, Sata was also campaigning to limit Chinese aggression globally. Throughout his life, he campaigned for recognition of Taiwan and advocated the need for replacement of Chinese firms operating across the world with the Taiwanese.
The Zambian leader who spent a large part of his life under the colonial rule believed that the Chinese are worse than the British colonisers and stated “We want the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return… They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took good care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilisation…at least Western capitalism has a human face; the Chinese are only out to exploit us”.
The sudden demise of Zambian President in 2014 came as boon and it began launching several projects in Zambia that it had been aspired for several years. Companies controled by the CCP rallied their projects in the country, spanning several major infrastructure projects. Zambia has also become a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) and the project is being completed at a rapid speed. Many Zambian leaders have expressed their concern on BRI and see it as a major colonising weopen.
Amongst the most vocal critiques of such projects of Information and Broadcasting Chishimba Kambwili. Exposing the sheer corruption involving Chinese Companies, he said, “Chinese loan often don’t even go to Zambian accounts. They choose the contractor from China, the contractor is paid in China, but it reflects in our books as a loan from China.” It is believed that he was sacked by the ruling party for his anti-China sentiments as he calls himself an individual who is “very critical about the government’s borrowing, especially from China.”
Accountability groups have been highlighting the all-around corruption in Chinese projects in Zambia. As a striking example, a major part of the newly constructed Lusaka-Chirundu road, constructed by Chinese firm China Henan, was washed away by rainfall soon after it was operationalised.
Similarly, another Chinese project the Lusaka-Ndola dual carriageway project, completed by a Chinese firm, is of sub-standard quality and is believed to be too expensive.
Sata has also been an adherent critique of rising population if Chinese citizens in the country and is estimated to be around one lakh as per few estimates. The country is now falling deeper into the Chinese debt trap and of February 2018, the country owed 28 percent of its debt to China.
However, the Chinese influence and its impact has started covering everyday lives of an average Zambian citizen. The domestic media is full of content in Mandarin. Even the state-owned Times of Zambia widely published content in the Chinese language. In fact, China is now controlling a major share of the public radio and TV broadcaster company, ZNBC. Besides, the Chinese have also taken over the control of national power supplier ZESCO.
After Sata’s demise, Zambia looked optimistically at a battery of young leaders to carry forward his baton. One of such leaders was James Lukuku, who took to the streets for protests against breach of the human rights and the undermining of Zambia’s sovereignty by Chinese Companies. The ‘Say No to China’ campaign launched by his new party-Republican Progressive Party gained a huge amount of traction. However, with his early demise in November last year, the pessimism is looming deep for the Zambians.
The local youth are turning up for a protest against China in massive numbers and the anti-China campaign has become the popular movement. One could easily see Zambian youth sporting an accessory with #SayNoToChina. Such goods have become a massive hit in the market of Zambia.It is believed that not one, but several popular leaders would soon emerge from the movement to counter Chinese influence and save Zambia from turning into a Chinese Colony.