By Shapi Shacinda
Lusaka - Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata said on Monday he would welcome Chinese investors in the country's mining industry if he was elected president, in an apparent policy shift designed to reassure foreign investors.
Patriotic Front leader Sata, who is contesting the November presidential election after the death of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa last month, said he would safeguard local and foreign investors' interests.
"We will protect the Chinese investments in Zambia, we need their investments, we need their technology," Sata said in comments broadcast on state radio on Monday.
Sata narrowly lost to Mwanawasa in a 2006 election. He had said he would expel Chinese investors he accused of exploiting Zambian workers. His allegations that Chinese companies fail to maintain safety standards have won support from Zambian workers.
The growing presence of Chinese firms in Zambia has prompted an anti-Chinese backlash in some parts of the country, whose economy is predominantly driven by copper mining.
China's government and its state-controlled companies have invested billions of dollars in Africa to secure natural resources for the Asian giant's growing economy and build Beijing's political influence in the developing world.
In Zambia, Chinese companies have invested over $500-million in mining and other sectors over the last five years, Treasury data shows. It plans to invest a further $900-million over the next five years in an economic free zone, where its companies will be exempted from some taxes such as customs duties.
Zambia, which became one of Africa's rare success stories under Mwanawasa, faces economic and political uncertainty as the contest to replace Mwanawasa intensifies.
Investors hope Zambia's new leadership will stick to Mwanawasa's fiscal discipline, which won him praise from Western donors and billions of dollars in debt relief for the southern African country.
The ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party chose the country's vice president, Rupiah Banda, on Friday as its candidate to fight the election.
Banda beat off a challenge from Finance Minister Ng'andu Magande and 14 other candidates to represent the governing party in the race to succeed Mwanawasa, who died after a stroke.
Banda, who has held many diplomatic posts, has a degree in economics and is also a prominent businessman. He owns a firm that supplies mining equipment in the Copperbelt region.
Banda has promised continuity in policies.
Sata told journalists on Monday that his party would respect all legally binding contracts the MMD had signed with international companies if he comes to office.