Wall Street Journal
In Africa, China's expansion begins to stir resentment
Investment boom fuels 'colonialism' charges; a tragedy in Zambia
02 February 2007
CHAMBISHI, Zambia -
Chinese President Hu Jintao embarked on an upbeat tour of Africa this week, doling out aid and lauding China's growing economic and political ties with the continent.
But there is little love for China in this ramshackle township, which had to be dropped from the agenda of President Hu's weekend visit to Zambia because of likely unrest.
Set amid rolling hills in Zambia's copper belt, Chambishi was supposed to be a showcase of Sino-African friendship. China's state metals conglomerate, China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining (Group) Co., bought the mothballed copper mine here in 1998, bringing plenty of jobs and investments. Initial gratitude, however, quickly turned into seething discontent, as the new Chinese owners banned union activity and cut corners on safety. In 2005, dozens of locals were killed in a blast at the Chinese explosives facility serving the mine -- the worst industrial disaster in Zambia's history. Then, the following year, protesting Zambian employees were sprayed with gunfire. "The Chinese, they don't even consider us to be human beings," complains Albert Mwanaumo, a former Chambishi miner who says he was shot by a Chinese supervisor. "They think they have the right to rule us."
Chinese-owned shops now dominate the main market in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
Similar feelings of resentment about China's unfolding scramble for influence in Africa are beginning to bubble up across the continent. African leaders still hail China's burgeoning involvement as a solution to Africa's woes and a welcome alternative to the West. But among ordinary Africans, appreciation of this unprecedented influx of Chinese investments, products and settlers isn't nearly as uniform. Recognizing this opinion shift, South African President Thabo Mbeki has repeatedly cautioned in recent weeks that China risks replicating in Africa a "colonial relationship" of the kind that existed under white rule.
These concerns testify to China's maturing as a global economic and political superpower, a force that's beginning to challenge world-wide influence of the U.S. and Europe. That's especially true here in Africa, a continent dismissed by many Westerners as a hopeless case, and treated by Beijing as a high-priority area of national interest.
Nowhere has this grass-roots backlash been stronger than in Zambia. In elections last fall, opposition leader Michael Sata ran for president on a platform of outright China-bashing, unleashing against Beijing the same kind of fury that populist radicals in Latin America or the Middle East direct at the U.S. "Zambia is becoming a province -- no, a district -- of China," he thundered. "We've removed one foreign power and we don't want another foreign power here, especially one that is not a democracy."
Though Mr. Sata failed to dislodge the China-backed incumbent, his Patriotic Front movement secured widespread support: It now controls Zambia's capital city Lusaka and most municipal governments in the nation's copper-rich mining areas. Following the Zambian campaign, similar political sentiments came to the open in neighboring countries, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Lesotho.
[Zambian presidential candidate Michael Sata, shown greeting supporters on his arrival at a rally prior to the Sept. 28 election, ran on an anti-China platform.]
Zambian presidential candidate Michael Sata, shown greeting supporters on his arrival at a rally prior to the Sept. 28 election, ran on an anti-China platform.
"Among ordinary people, a very strong resentment, bordering on racism, is emerging against the Chinese," says Henning Melber, a former activist in Namibia's struggle for majority rule who now heads the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation think tank in Sweden. "It's because the Chinese are seen as backing the [African] governments in oppressing their own people."
China's hunger for raw materials is the main reason why it's become so involved in African affairs. Sino-African trade in 2006 more than quadrupled to more than $55 billion since 2002, and is expected to hit $100 billion by 2010. Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia as China's main source of oil, with large-scale supplies also flowing from Sudan and Nigeria. Chinese companies have sought Guinea's bauxite, Namibia's uranium, and the assortment of rare metals that are found in the Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
In Zambia, a landlocked country of 11.5 million, the main draw for China is copper -- and the recent outcry is rooted in the tragic events that followed China's investment at the mine in Chambishi. China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining purchased the mine, which had been shuttered since 1987, for $20 million. It stepped forward after a Canadian company that had initially won the tender pulled out of the deal. Investing more than $100 million in the property, the Chinese conglomerate's Zambian unit, called NFC Africa Mining PLC, restarted production in late 2001, ramping up output to reach 50,000 metric tons of copper concentrate last year.
Dozens of Chinese managers and supervisors settled in the township, a maze of trash-strewn dirt alleys set across the paved road from the mine. Inside the mine itself, a red Chinese flag was hoisted above a wall covered with inspirational words of Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of the National People's Congress: "To Rouse Yourself in Vigorous Efforts to Make the Company Prosperous!"
As part of its prosperity plan, the mine's management paid Zambian employees less than the minimum wage, currently $67 a month, and strictly prohibited union activity, according to employees and union officials. A 2004 memo to staff, which still hangs inside NFC Africa offices, warned of "severe punishment" for anyone attending meetings of the "so-called action group [of union organizers], which is illegal." People suspected of union involvement were fired on the spot, says Gillian Mubanga, the current union leader at the mine.
To drive up production and save on costs, NFC also established on the Chambishi property a joint venture with the Beijing General Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. Dubbed BGRIMM Explosives Ltd., it set out to manufacture cheap explosives for the region's mining industry. "BGRIMM -- Turning Your Rocks Into Gold," boasted advertisement billboards that still dot the roadsides across Zambia's Copper Belt region.
Then, one sunny morning in April 2005, Chambishi was rocked by a huge blast. Earth shook and windowpanes broke in nearby houses. A runaway chemical reaction turned the BGRIMM facility into a giant fireball, pulverizing the entire structure. A total of 46 Zambian employees of BGRIMM were killed, their charred body parts strewn around the smoldering crater. Eyewitnesses say the Chinese staff had hurriedly driven away from the site shortly before this explosion occurred. Local residents theorize that the Chinese realized something was about to happen and didn't bother warning African employees before fleeing themselves.