JOHANNESBURG - When the state-owned Times of Zambia recently published its leading story in Mandarin, it stoked simmering anger over perceptions that President Edgar Lungu’s government is gradually surrendering the country’s sovereignty to China.
The Asian powerhouse has long fended off accusations that it is undertaking a covert “second colonisation” of Africa, following in the footsteps of Europe. Still, suspicions have lately gained traction in this former British colony of Northern Rhodesia, whose citizens are usually regarded as some of the most hospitable in southern Africa.
The article in the Times of Zambia, or “Times of Chambia” as some residents are now calling it, has done little to ease fears that Lungu’s government could cede control of national assets like state-owned power utility Zesco to offset some of its heavy debt to Beijing.
Lungu’s administration denies it plans to sell the electricity company.
Information Minister Dora Siliya said the use of the Chinese dialect in the newspaper article was a business decision meant to attract Chinese readers and advertisers.
In the article, Lungu told a visiting Swiss delegation that Zambia would “not look east or west (but) look forward and go with whoever wants to go with us.”
But for many, the article was another example of Lusaka kowtowing to China, to which it owes a large chunk of its nearly US$10 billion in external debt.
Fears of being trapped
In sentiments expressed elsewhere in Africa, many Zambians fear Beijing has doled out billions of dollars in loans in order to trap the country with unsustainable debt, paving the way to annexing some of its assets as settlement.
Even when it has directly invested in Africa, China is often accused of focusing on extracting resources to feed its own booming economy.
Critics say the projects it funds have poor environmental safeguards and often rely on workers flown in from China rather than local labour.
Lungu has pushed back against opponents of his ruling Patriotic Front who he says have deliberately painted its economic relationship with China as colonialism.
Zambia’s main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, took the lead in slamming the government after it recently denied entry to prominent Kenyan lawyer Patrick Lumumba, who had been scheduled to give a lecture on “Africa in the age of China influence and global geo-dynamics”.
The government cited unspecified security concerns relating to Lumumba, who is director of the Kenya School of Law. But many believe it was wary of providing a public platform to the fiery pan-African who has disapproved of China’s increasing influence on the continent.
During a lecture in South Africa last year in honour of student activist Onkgopotse Tiro, who was killed by apartheid agents in 1974, Lumumba said while Africa should welcome the Chinese, “we must stop them from raiding our resources.”
“There is no shortage of individuals who are in the business of injecting Africans with anaesthetic drugs (so) that they may continue in their slumber,” he had said.
“We must remind ourselves that there are three ways of being at the dinner table. You can be at the dinner table as a diner, as a waiter or as food to be eaten. Africans have been at the dinner table as food for too long.”
Altruism or desire for new markets?
China has rejected criticism that it is pursuing an exploitative relationship with Africa, much like its former European colonial rulers. Its ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian, argued recently that the world’s second largest economy, unlike the West, sought to pursue “win-win” cooperation.
But China doesn’t always send its finest to Africa, and in many countries, citizens have accused the Asian country of dumping poor imports.
In the early 2000s, Zimbabweans coined the term “zhing-zhong” to refer to low-cost Chinese goods, mainly clothes and shoes of poor quality. South Africans called the same products “fong kong”, another colloquial play on the Chinese language.
In Zambia in April, a private investigation revealed how a Chinese-owned company had allegedly been manufacturing counterfeit mineral water for bottling companies.
In 2016, China's Foreign Ministry denied reports that Chinese food companies were canning human flesh and selling it in Africa as corned beef.
Still, even those who welcome China’s presence say it is not driven by altruism but often by a desire to secure markets for exports while guaranteeing employment for Chinese workers.
Standard Bank says debt to China accounts for about 14 percent of the total debt contracted by sub-Saharan African countries, excluding South Africa.
By contrast, Chinese foreign direct investment into Africa remains small, averaging just US$2.1 billion over the last 15 years.
At last month’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation that drew African leaders to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged $60 billion in financing for Africa and the write-off of some debt to poorer countries.
The money will be split into $15 billion in aid, interest-free loans and concessional loans, a $20-billion credit line, a $10-billion special fund for China-Africa development and a $5-billion special fund for imports from Africa.
- African News Agency (ANA)/News-Decoder
* Stella Mapenzauswa is a Johannesburg-based journalist, media consultant and trainer who has covered economics and politics in southern Africa, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi, for more than two decades.