China's ambassador to Zambia, Li Baodong, did a stupid thing a few days ago. Angered by a meeting between a Zambian presidential candidate, Michael Sata, and a group of Taiwanese businessmen, and Sata's subsequent declaration that Taiwan is a sovereign nation, Ambassador Li threatened that China would cut diplomatic relations with Zambia. (Reports in Zambian newspapers also suggested that Baodong had gone ever further, announcing that Chinese investments in Zambian mining, construction and tourism interests were on hold until after the Sept. 28 election, but China is denying those accusations.)
To longtime China watchers, the inept undiplomatic behavior of Ambassador Li immediately brought to mind China's saber-rattling at Taiwan during that nation's presidential elections in 2000. Back then, China threatened dire consequences if DPP candidate and Taiwanese independence advocate Chen Shuibian was elected. The strategy did not work -- if anything, it backfired, enraging voters and pumping up turnout. And even though Zambian observers believe that Sata has no chance to win the upcoming election, one could excuse the incumbent, Levy Mwanawasa, for being annoyed. Bullying is a poorly thought out campaign tactic, not just in Zambia, but in the larger international arena of public relations.
The ostensible excuse for the fracas, China's ongoing diplomatic jockeying with Taiwan, is but a sideshow, however. What this eruption tells us about the emerging nature of the African-Chinese relationship is far more significant. China's been a major player in Zambia for decades. Initially, it was all about building third-world solidarity against Western imperialist capitalist running dogs. But now China ain't nothin' but a turbo-powered money-grubbing hound dog itself. China's quick march into Africa, buying up minerals and other commodities across the continent, all the while blithely ignoring human rights disasters in countries like Zimbabwe and Sudan, has been widely remarked upon in recent months. In Zambia, the story is copper. Zambia has a lot of it, and China has a bottomless appetite for it.
In 1998, a state-owned Chinese company paid $20 million for an ownership stake in a bankrupt copper mine in Chambishi, a town in the aptly named Copperbelt Province located in north-central Zambia. The initial reaction was reportedly enthusiastic. A revived mine would bring jobs and associated economic development. (Reports in the Chinese press say that Chinese companies employ more than 10,000 people in Zambia, and China has been busy building critical infrastructural projects -- roads, railways, power stations -- to assist in its resource extraction. China is the third largest foreign investor in Zambia, after South Africa and Britain.)
But anyone who knows much about the working conditions of Chinese miners would be justified in worrying about the life expectancy of African workers in a Chinese-run mine. In 2005 alone, according to China's own statistics more than 5,000 workers died in Chinese mining accidents. The Chambishi mine began renewed production in 2003. In April 2005 46 miners died in a horrific explosion. Then, in July of this year, five miners were shot during a riot over conditions at the same mine -- whether directly by Chinese managers or by Zambian police is still not clear.
Suffice to say, the bloom is off the rose for popular sentiment over Chinese economic involvement in Zambia. In such a context, Ambassador Li's threats seem even more imbecilic. Perhaps Zambia isn't very high on China's list of diplomatic postings?
China's total numbers for trade and investment in Africa are still dwarfed by the U.S. and the European Union. But China's growth rate in the last five years is phenomenal. Imports of commodities and exports of manufactured goods are both shooting up, as is foreign direct investment. Some see this as good for African economic development. But as an excellent study commissioned in April by the U.K. Department for International Development, "The Impact of China in Sub-Saharan Africa," reports in detail, there are plenty of negative consequences in Africa from China's worldwide surge.
To choose just one example: While African consumers, just like Americans shopping at Wal-Mart, benefit from the low prices of Chinese manufactured goods, on the global market, African textile makers are being clobbered by Chinese competition. Since the WTO-mandated end of textile quotas at the beginning of 2005, numerous African nations have experienced significant employment declines in their export-oriented textile industries. It has also long been noted in the international economic development world that commodity booms do not automatically equate with economic growth. Quite the opposite, the so-called resource curse suggests that having abundant resources for foreign exploitation can actually hold development back.
For Zambia's rulers, Chinese investment is currently a lifeline. President Mwanawasa's embarrassingly obsequious apology to China is testimony to that. On Sept. 1, reported the Times of Zambia, he called Sata's remarks unfortunate.
"He said he had communicated to the Chinese ambassador to rescind the decision not to invest in Zambia, saying if that happened the people would suffer as Chinese investment had created many job opportunities for Zambians."
"'You heard what the Chinese said two days ago. They said they are going to suspend investment until after September 28 because if certain politicians are elected into office, they would want to leave before they are chased away. China has given us aid since Independence in the mines, road construction and they have done a lot of things,' he said."
"He was hopeful that the Chinese people would accept his apology and continue investing in Zambia."
Shouldn't China be the party apologizing here? For interfering in another sovereign nation's internal politics? For the conditions of workers at the Chambishi mine?
Then again, who's really at fault? The copper mined by the workers in the Copperbelt travels a long journey, but some significant percentage of it only passes through China, on its way to retail outlets at your local mall. That copper is likely part of the chips in our iPods or hybrid automobile engines. In three weeks, there will be an election for president in Zambia contested by men whose names I never heard of before this morning. But Chambishi's really not that far away, is it?