Wed, Feb 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Heavy Chinese investment in Zambia revives old colonial fears

By Chris McGreal  /  THE GUARDIAN , LUSAKA

When the foundation stone was laid for the Mulungushi textile factory three decades ago, the project was hailed as another demonstration of communist China doing for Zambia what the capitalist West would not.

Beijing put up the money to build Zambia China Mulungushi Textiles and provided the expertise to run it. It grew to become the biggest textile mill in the country, manufacturing 17 million meters of fabric a year and 100,000 pieces of clothing, and winning international awards for the quality of its cloth. The mill employed more than 1,000 people, propped up the economy of Kabwe in northern Zambia and kept thousands of cotton growers in business.

But last month the factory shut down production, strangled by a new wave of Chinese interest across Africa that some critics say amounts to little more than another round of foreign plunder, as Beijing extracts minerals and other natural resources at knock-down prices while battering the continent's economies with a flood of subsidized goods and surplus labor.

Hostility is such in some quarters that Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), on an eight-country tour of Africa to promote Beijing's blossoming trade relationship with the continent, axed plans to launch a US$200 million smelter at a Chinese-owned Zambian copper mine last weekend because of miners' anger at working conditions.

He also faced protests from the sacked Mulungushi factory workers.

Hu rejected accusations that China was exploiting Zambian labor and resources.

"China is happy to have Zambia as a good friend, good partner and a good brother," he said, adding that the relationship between the two countries "represents a new type of strategic partnership" in Africa.

The growing Asian presence in Zambia even became an issue in last year's presidential election, with the opposition threatening to throw out of the country large numbers of Chinese traders and laborers who have become an increasing source of agitation for taking business and jobs.

One of the problems, say the opposition, is that no one can say just how many Chinese there are in Zambia. The government told parliament there are 2,300 but economists say the real figure runs into the tens of thousands.

"It's hard to know how they all got here," said Guy Scott, a former agriculture minister and now the Patriotic Front leader in parliament. "If you go to the market you find Chinese selling cabbages and beansprouts. What is the point in letting them in to do that? There's a lot of Chinese here doing construction. Zambians can do that. The Chinese building firms are undercutting the local firms."

"Our textile factories can't compete with cheap Chinese imports subsidized by a foreign government. People are saying: `We've had bad people before. The whites were bad, the Indians were worse but the Chinese are worst of all,'" Scott said.

The government has accused the Patriotic Front (PF) of racism and, in the run up to the election, Beijing warned that if the opposition won it would pull out of construction projects. The PF lost but it came out ahead in the cities, where the anti-Chinese message played well.

Dipak Patel, Zambia's trade and industry minister until last September, said the government was mistaken to ignore growing resentment.

"We have a lot of Chinese traders selling in the market and displacing local people and causing a lot of friction," he said. "You have Chinese laborers here moving wheelbarrows. That's not the kind of investment we need. I understand they have 1.2 billion people but they don't have to send them to Africa. This needs to be dealt with because you'll end up with a situation with what happened in Uganda with the Indians."

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