Zambia’s Confucian Capitalism

‘Explaining why he prefers imported Chinese labour, the head of Zambia’s largest construction company said: “Here they are like the British. They have tea breaks and a lot of days off”’

Michael Burleigh

The Chinese are a pragmatic people. A Zambian working at the Chinese-owned Chambishi Copper Mine got a surprise recently when he was inadvertently paid twice. One payslip was for the kwacha equivalent of $600, the other for $1,000. It seems that had the incumbent President Rupiah Banda won the September elections, Mr Hedges Mwaba — the lucky employee — would have got the lower amount, but when opposition leader Michael Sata won, Mwaba received the higher sum. As Sata had campaigned against them, the Chinese judged it prudent to pay over the odds for future goodwill.

Widespread anger at alleged Chinese neocolonial rapacity swung the election Sata’s way, despite all the Chinese-manufactured lollipops bearing Banda’s face distributed before polling day. There is a common Zambian view that “the whites were bad, the Indians were worse, but the Chinese are worst of all.” 

There was last year’s incident when two Chinese mine managers at the Collum Coal Mine used shotguns to quell a riot over low wages. Although they were charged with attempted murder of the 13 people who were wounded, all charges were mysteriously dropped. Zambians resent the way in which Chinese labourers have metamorphosed into the sharpest of Lusaka’s entrepreneurs, from taxis and textiles to undercutting local traders with cheaper chickens, cabbages and beansprouts.

Not being subject to the West’s stifling political correctness, the Chinese blame Britain’s influence for their problems. Explaining why he prefers imported Chinese labour, the head of Zambia’s largest construction company said: “Chinese people work until they finish and then rest. Here they are like the British. They have tea breaks and a lot of days off.”

Although Beijing threatened to pull out of Zambia when Sata spoke of recognising Taiwan, the Chinese have since invited him to visit soon, while some Zambian mine workers have benefited from an immediate 85 per cent pay rise — admittedly not much since many of them earn $4 a day.

There is a wider problem in Africa and it does not just involve China’s ferocious quest for raw materials to satisfy middle-class consumers’ craving for baths and door handles fashioned from African materials or mobile phones reliant on rare earth metals. The world’s largest producer of cut roses, the Bangalore-based Karuturi Global, has just acquired nearly a million acres of land in Tanzania, or one per cent of the country’s surface. The aim is to cultivate biofuels as well as gladioli and roses for the European flower market. This is part of a huge drive, by India, China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, to buy up vast tracts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Sudan and Tanzania in a manner that even some Indian economists consider neocolonialist or “piratical”. 

Apart from the fact that the land is cheap — at £38 a hectare in Tanzania — it circumvents complications major Indian food and flower producers face at home. Smallholdings and middlemen dominate Indian farming. An estimated £6 billion is lost as produce rots on its way to market. There are also government bans on the export of non-Basmati rice, so by growing it in Africa, Indian companies can sell it overseas. As in China, a more affluent Indian middle class is eating more meat, which means an urgent need for maize-based animal feed. 

Various African countries have begun to experience inter-ethnic tensions involving Asians. So far these have been focused on the Chinese, whose clannish hard-heartedness is deeply resented. In Maseru, the capital of tiny Lesotho, there were anti-Chinese riots in 2007, sparked not by Chinese domination of textile mills, but by the fact that every successful Chinese entrepreneur brings along 100 relatives who take over local stores. Africa has been down this path before. In the 1960s several African leaders, including Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, exploited anti-Asian sentiment for their own political ends. So did the grotesque Idi Amin of Uganda, who drove out tens of thousands of East African Asians in the following decade.

There is a further issue. One aspect of China’s soft power is to export its authoritarian capitalist model, based on a combination of rapid development and hearing and seeing no evils in the regimes it deals with. The dealings routinely include putting up to $500 million in the rulers’ Swiss bank accounts, lavish presidential palaces, hospitals and roads. But sometimes things do not pan out China’s way. The fact that Zambia has just had a peaceful election in which power passed smoothly from Banda to Sata is also part of Africa’s story, and it was not a win for Beijing’s Confucian capitalism. 

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