What Sata’s Win in Zambia Means for China

The implications of Zambia’s election of Michael Sata, a fierce critic of Chinese involvement in the country, continue to attract analysis. At The Atlantic, Howard French examines the widespread interpretation of the election as a “referendum on China”:

Too often, thinking on China and Africa blindly obeys an ideological divide in which the author’s biases are neither concealed nor inspected. China is either the new imperial power preparing to ravage a helpless continent (and snatch it from the West), or China is a benign and misunderstood giant, a transformative actor, and by that one should read for the good. Reality is much more complex than the bashers or the boosters realize, or at least admit to themselves. But the Zambian elections should particularly give the latter contingent pause. Zambians, too, have been told that China is good for them, notably by their leaders of most of the last decade, and the least one can say in the wake of their vote is that they haven’t been altogether persuaded.

Some of the reasons why are obvious, and were repeated to me over and over by Zambians in every walk of life. These range from widespread perceptions of Chinese corruption — both in dealing with political leaders and in more routine bureaucratic matters — to the lack of respect for labor laws and the poor working conditions in Chinese industrial ventures.

But if is a leading edge in any meaningful sense, the implications of last week’s elections there may go beyond issues like these, however important, raising broader questions about the entire Chinese approach to the continent ….

At France 24, Henry Hall downplays the role China played in Sata’s campaign this year, but argues that his election may lead Beijing to rein in, finally, the wilder independent elements of the Chinese presence in Africa:

As I’ve argued before on this blog the majority of the complaints against China’s role in Africa have been directed at cowboy operators, rather than big state owned enterprises. These small scale operators have existed in an almost unregulated space, evading local regulations through corruption, and not being held to account by Beijing. In the past Beijing has ignored the transgressions of these unconnected players, but the association of these players with China as a whole (the perception of a China Inc.) has been shown to create a serious risk for Chinese strategic interests. One possible outcome of this election will be that Beijing takes a greater interest in the lower reaches of China Inc., helping African countries to better regulate Chinese immigration and poor practices. For Beijing, resource security comes first. The election of Sata will demonstrate to Chinese policy makers that regulating the small players matters.

As International Rivers’ Peter Bosshard wrote last year, the larger SOEs actually are often relatively well behaved, if only for pragmatic reasons:

and China , the leading Chinese actors in this field [i.e. dam building], don’t want to become rogue actors on the international market, but are eager to be seen as good global citizens. In contrast, smaller companies often don’t care about their reputation.

A report at Danwei, on the other hand, described the scale and murkiness of private sector Chinese business in Africa, and the overriding motivation of those involved:

Although multi-billion natural resource deals dominate the headlines, as many as 80 per cent of the Chinese companies that are currently operating in Africa are small or medium-sized enterprises, according to Dr Jing Gu, a research fellow at Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies.

They have come to get rich, she says: “Chinese investment in Africa is not driven by Chinese government policy or Chinese political interests. They are more focused on the pursuit of profit.” […]

Estimates of the number of Chinese vary. Official figures from the Namibian Trade ministry show there are 500 small Chinese retailers in the country. But since the majority of small companies do not register themselves, the number could be far higher. “Senior Chinese officials estimate that there are a million Chinese on the continent but no-one truly knows because the borders are porous and there are no real records, such as bank accounts,” says Mr Davies.

See also CDT’s coverage of Sata’s victory and one of its apparent consequences, and a Stimson Center report on China’s “New Colonialism”, via CDT.

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