In Zambia, the Sino-Zam relations debate is commonplace. It covers the sale of cheap goods, manufacturing and even mass unemployment, occasioned by Chinese doing jobs like chicken rearing or selling roast corn by the roadside, that should be a preserve of the locals.
But perhaps more dominant and emotive is the talk about the Chinese slave labour conditions, whipped up by then the opposition in the 2011 election campaign in which the current Patriotic Front (PF) party led by Michael Sata swept to victory.
PF rode on anti-Chinese wave and scored big. However, it now was like the chickens coming home to roost as the narrative takes a new spiral, “colonialism and forceful public asset takeovers”.
The debate has taken a new dimension and revolves around the ever increasing debt that Zambia owes the Asian country. China is also giving other African countries billions of dollars in aid, without the political and economic strings attached by the West. Numerous roads, hospitals and stadiums have sprouted across the continent, thanks to the Chinese.
The relationship between Beijing and Lusaka date back many decades. It was, however, solidified in the 1970s as the father of modern China, Mao Tse Tung built Zambia a 1,100-mile railway for its mining exports after the route through the white-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa was cut by sanctions. The West had refused to help, saying such a project was not viable.
The Chinese have, in the recent past, managed to pump millions of dollars into the Zambian economy and resuscitated mining firms which were long unproductive after the privatisation bid in the early 90s as the country switched from a socialist-orientation to a liberal one.
The current Zambian government’s penchant for borrowing-two Eurobonds due to mature- has been hair raising, leading to the mounting speculation about debt swap with state assets for Chinese liabilities.
As at March this year, Zambia’s outstanding debt stood at $9.3 billion, having risen from $8.7 billion at the end of 2017.
Last week, Finance minister Margaret Mwanakwate dismissed media reports that Zambia was offering its electricity firm, a broadcaster and the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport to China as security against loans.
“The Zambian Government has not offered any state-owned enterprise to any lender as collateral for any borrowing,” Ms Mwanakatwe said.
She also dismissed claims that the government was exploring debt/asset swap options.
China is funding major infrastructure projects in Zambia among them the $300 million upgrade of the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport.
Beijing has invested more than $2 billion in Zambia’s mining, agriculture, service and housing sectors. It has also built multimillion-dollar stadiums, schools and roads.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that the country was at a high risk of debt distress, an analysis President Edgar Lungu says is “false”.
On Friday, President Lungu defended Zambia’s ties with China amid reports that some parastatals had been offered as collateral for Chinese loans.
“Our friendship with China is mutual and no amount of malicious propaganda will deter us from the opportunities that lie in what we share,” he told MPs in Parliament.
“I urge everyone to remain focused and not be moved by the ongoing mischaracterised information suggesting that our friendship with China suggests colonialism,” he said, adding that “China has never been known for such!”
An Academic from the University of Zambia, the country’s largest public university, Mr Alex Ng’oma, too does not share the view that the “debt albatross is a tactic that would colonise Zambia”.
“What, colonialism in this era, how is even that possible?”
“Those running with that story just want to malign our government and make us lose trust in our institutions. So I urge people to dismiss this story.”
A lawyer and governing party lawmaker, Mr Tutwa Ngulube, told the state broadcaster that Zambia had every reason to be grateful to China due to its unflinching support in building infrastructure all over the country.
“Investors from China should be allowed to come to Zambia just like investors from other parts of the world. But the Finance ministry should avail information on loans obtained from China in order to avoid speculation,” he advised.
Zambian should not bow down to the propaganda machinery that has been launched against the Chinese government, he said.
But the China-African colonialism debate goes beyond Zambia. It was reverberating all over the continent and beyond.
Former Comesa secretary-general Sindiso Ngwenya was recently quoted weighing in on the matter.
Mr Ngwenya, who worked for the economic bloc for 34 years, said the China-Africa relationship has always been based on a win-win basis.
“I recall vividly that during this period [colonial] there were no voices that spoke about the People’s Republic of China supporting the decolonisation and African countries because of self-interest that is based on exploitative relationship.”
“It is therefore disingenuous for those who only yesterday and for centuries were involved in the enslavement of Africans and exploitation of natural resources to turn around and proclaim that they have clean hands and that China’s partnership is based on the model of exploitation that they know.”
Comesa is the largest regional economic organisation in Africa, with 21 member states and a population of about 390 million. Comesa has a free trade area and launched a customs union in 2009.
To their credit, however, Zambian youth continue benefitting from the hundreds of jobs being created by Chinese loans and investments.
The new Chinese ambassador to Lusaka, Mr Li Jie, said soon after the Presidential address on Friday: “I heard some description of China being a face of new colonialism. It feels really strange. We don’t want to have this hat, it is not appropriate for China. Colonial policy has never existed in China’s diplomacy and practice. China never colonised any African country in their history. On the contrary, all the challenges the African countries are facing now…originate from their colonial pasts.”
To the US envoy Daniel Foote, some caution was necessary in the Chinese relations.
“We’re not telling you [Zambia] what to do, but all we are asking you is to walk into these deals with your eyes open,” he said.