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Zambia's Vote: The China Issue

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: October 2, 2006

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International media coverage of elections in Africa often focuses more on whether the process is “free and fair” than on policy issues. In the run-up to Thursday’s elections in Zambia, however, presidential candidate Michael Sata created a stir with repeated verbal attacks on Chinese investors. His speeches, inveighing against Chinese-owned copper mines for mining accidents and asserting Chinese immigrants should not be competing with Zambian small businesses, have sparked a heated debate (WashPost) in the country—both in the media and on the streets. While some like the cheap goods China brings to Zambia, others object to the use of Chinese citizens, instead of Zambians, for unskilled labor jobs (FT).

Sata leavens his anti-China speeches with populist rhetoric: “Lower taxes, more jobs, and more money in your pockets” is his slogan (Independent Online). As leader of the Patriotic Front party, Sata hopes to unseat President Levy Mwanawasa. He faces an uphill battle: Mwanawasa reaps the political benefits of a huge rise in copper prices (BBC), not to mention the selection of Zambia last year as one of the countries to receive debt forgiveness by the G8. But critics say the tough fiscal policies required for Zambia to qualify for debt relief have hurt the country’s poor, many of whom blame the restrictions (LAT) for the high unemployment rate, officially about 50 percent.

The Times of Zambia said ahead of the vote they were the “most contested elections that this nation has ever experienced.” But electoral observers' assessment of the transparency of Thursday's elections, in which voter turnout was very high, are positive. Mwanawasa was reelected with 43 percent of the vote, but opposition protests continue in Lusaka and Sata is demanding a recount (LAT). Analysts say tight budget constraints mean Mwanawasa will be hard-pressed to deliver on his campaign promises. Though the United States’ Millennium Challenge Corporation signed a two-year, $22.7 million agreement with Zambia in May, the funds are marked for reducing corruption and improving government effectiveness, not social spending.

Given Zambia’s tough economic climate, the country might not be able to afford Sata’s wish of closing its doors to China (China’s ambassador to Zambia did threaten to sever relations with the country if Sata wins, but Beijing later distanced itself from his remarks). According to the Chinese embassy, Beijing has invested more than $300 million in Zambia and employed more than 10,000 Zambians.

Over the past several years, Chinese money has poured into many African countries, primarily for oil and other natural resources, as this CFR Task Force report on Africa noted, but also for industries such as textiles. This investment is generally welcomed locally, where China often improves or builds infrastructure—roads, bridges, and dams—the continent desperately needs, but it has raised eyebrows abroad. China has major oil interests in Sudan (PBS), for instance, yet has been unwilling to exercise any influence on the country’s Islamic government as it continues to block deployment of UN peacekeepers to the violence-plagued Darfur region. Concern about Chinese influence extends beyond Africa, too, as Beijing's investments in Myanmar and Iran also draw criticism (Bloomberg) from the United States and the European Union.

Trade between Africa and Asia has tripled in the past five years, writes World Bank economic advisor Harry G. Broadman in Africa’s Silk Road, but he cautions that China’s high tariffs on certain African exports are an obstacle to further trade expansion. Some experts, such as Chris Alden of the London School of Economics, say African countries should address this asymmetrical relationship by seeking joint ventures that promote technology transfer and management training as well as working to correct the trade imbalance threatening local businesses and workers. “Deeper engagement with China is both desirable and inevitable for Africa.” he says, but “the ‘Africa that can say no’” is important in forming a balanced trade relationship. In the magazine Granta, journalist Lindsey Hilsum examines the way Chinese investment has changed Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Zimbabwe, concluding that China, coming to Africa with “no colonial hangover, no complex relationship of resentment,” might succeed where the United States and Europe have failed.

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