Divided Discourses: The Chinese Presence in Zambia

By Giulio Morello

A Michael Sata campaign truck.

A Michael Sata campaign truck.

photo credit: Commonwealth Secretariat via photopin cc

Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek recently said of Stalinist regimes that “since the official media do not openly report trouble, the most reliable way to detect it is to look out for compensatory excesses in state propaganda: the more ‘harmony’ is celebrated, the more chaos and antagonism there is in reality”.

Given Beijing’s emphasis on its harmonious relations with African partners, what does this tell us about China’s relationship with one of her best African friends: Zambia?

As early as 1970, the construction of TAZARA – a major Chinese-funded railway link between the Copperbelt province in Zambia and the Tanzanian port of Dar el Salam – revealed the subtlety of China’s relationship with Zambia. Mao was still alive and on the sun-baked and mosquito-ridden construction sites Chinese workers referred to their Zambian counterparts as ‘friends’ and to themselves as ‘experts’.

China’s relationships with African countries have been controversial ever since Zhou Enlai’s visit to the continent during 1963-64. However, what was originally described as a common struggle against imperialism is today portrayed as a more prosaic endeavour towards modernization and development. Despite this shift in emphasis, throughout the last fifty years of relations, Beijing has maintained a discourse of engagement notionally founded on the ideals of friendship, unity and pursuit of common goals.

This discursive blanket conceals a multiplicity of interests, power relations and conflicting narratives, as well as a tremendous diversity of Chinese presence(s) on the continent. In Zambia as elsewhere, the Chinese presence is mostly the result of uncoordinated actions undertaken by various parties: states, provincial governments, enterprises and individual migrants. These remarkably distinct actors are all subject to the homogenizing discourse of unity and friendship generated in Beijing and also to a more hostile but equally undiversified rhetoric produced in Zambia.

Since the construction of TAZARA, the attitudes expressed by the Zambian elite towards China and the Chinese have tended to oscillate between a sentiment of admiration and one of (quite often Western-inspired) suspicion. Until very recently, admiration and suspicion towards China constituted one of the major dividing lines between Zambia’s main political parties. While former Minister of Commerce Felix Mutati saw China as an eager investor and a model economy, the then opposition leader Michael Sata roared that China was making Zambia “a dumping place for human beings”. Sata was elected President in 2011, and while his strong anti-Chinese rhetoric might have softened, he is still capable of reigniting virulent xenophobic sentiment when it serves his political interests.

Despite his crude populist overtones, Sata’s use of anti-Chinese sentiment as a political tool has been highly sophisticated. From 2006 to 2011, the leader of the Patriotic Front succeeded in relating the grievances of Zambia’s mining proletariat to the increasingly visible presence of Chinese enterprises and migrants: cum hoc ergo propter hoc. By blaming foreign companies (Chinese in particular, ça va sans dire) for the tragic rise of labour casualization in the Copperbelt, Sata cultivated an image of “man of action” that made him hugely popular among the working classes.

The Chinese in Zambia constitute a very diverse and loosely connected community. Doctors, small entrepreneurs, workers and experts from State-owned and private companies reach Zambia from every corner of China and end up living in a scattered assortment of closed enclaves, usually with their families or with their employers. This limits the ability of the Chinese in Zambia to produce their own united response to local narratives, and impacts the way in which they react to the conflicting discourses to which they are exposed.

A general feeling of insecurity, if not danger, emerged as a consequence of the electoral campaign of 2006, which was accompanied by attacks on small Chinese traders. These events largely reinforced the traditional Chinese perception of Africans in Zambia. That is to say that on the whole, the Chinese consider Zambians to be naïve, backward and potentially hostile, but fundamentally kind-hearted and perfectly capable of modernizing with patient assistance from Beijing.

Interestingly, migrants also frequently appear to see themselves through the lens of state rhetoric, even though they have little or no contacts with compatriots in different enclaves and recognize that their community is extremely loose. Despite their isolation, their hostile environment has caused them to perceive themselves as “the Chinese” as opposed to “the Zambians”, despite the daily contacts and interactions that many have with local people, and despite the fact that the vast majority of migrants have no relations whatsoever with the Chinese state.

In the words of a Sichuanese entrepreneur based in Zambia since the mid-90s, unlike the West, China never sought to colonize Zambia. On the contrary, it seeks to “set an example for African nations and help them”. Talking to Chinese people on the streets of Lusaka it is not uncommon to hear similar arguments, often intermingled with a local brand of Chinese nationalism, which sees Sata as a puppet of Taiwan.

The Zambian case shows that the relationship between China and Africa appears to be steered by daily interactions between Chinese and Africans on the ground rather than by state policies. States and institutions, however, can play a subtler role in the construction of the discourse in which Sino-African relationships unfold and are given meaning. The intersection between these meanings and migrants’ own experiences gives rise, in Zambia, to a process of selective rejection and assimilation of homogenising narratives by a heterogeneous community, which reveals the complexity of the many Chinese presences in the country.

Back to Žižek – under a rhetoric of homogeneity one finds a diverse community, and under a diverse community… the same homogenizing narrative!

–      Views expressed are entirely the author’s own unless stated otherwise –

About the author: Giulio Morello is a specialist in China-Africa relations currently based at UNIDO in Cairo. Giulio studied at Bocconi University in Milan before training as a Sinologist at the University of Oxford and at Peking University. He has conducted extensive fieldwork on the Chinese presence in Zambia and keeps a blog.

COVER IMAGE: The TANZAM railway.
photo credit: richardstupart via photopin cc

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