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."
"The government needs to be very clear about what kind of investment it wants. If it's just shipping out resources and shipping in cheap goods and people that's not to our benefit. We in Zambia need to be very careful of this new scramble for Africa. What's happening is that the Chinese are very aggressive. They have a strategic plan," Patel said.
Late last year South African President Thabo Mbeki told students that Africa needs to be on its guard against allowing a "colonial relationship" to develop with Beijing, although he quickly added that he did not think that was China's motive.
In any case, it is a long way from the plunder of the European colonizers or the destruction wrought by the use of parts of Africa as a cold war battlefield by the superpowers.
The relationship between Beijing and Lusaka was solidified in the 1970s as Mao Zedong (毛澤東) built Zambia a 1,770km railway for its mining exports after the route through 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 new wave of Chinese interest was again greeted with enthusiasm as an alternative to Western governments that preach free trade and investment but provide little of either. China is also giving African countries billions of dollars in aid without the political and economic strings attached by the West, and building roads, hospitals and stadiums across the continent.
Workers at Zambia's struggling copper mines cheered when Chinese companies bought them up, but the relationship soured as miners grew resentful over what they said were harsher and less safe working conditions for lower pay than in the many other foreign-owned mines.
Two years ago 49 miners were blown up in an explosives factory at the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine in an accident blamed on lax safety. Last year the police shot five miners at Chambishi in a riot over working conditions.
The government temporarily closed another mine after men were forced to work underground without safety gear and boots. The new owners have also brought in workers to do jobs that Zambians say could go to them.
The most friction comes in markets such as Lusaka's sprawling Kamwala where Chinese traders have bought up shops. As tensions have risen, Chinese names above the door have been painted over or replaced. One of the few Asian shop names still on display in Kamwala is Heung Il Investment but its owner is a South Korean who sells Zambian-made clothes and is losing out to Chinese imports sold next door at half the price.
"There's no doubt that ours are better quality," said George Nerenda, one of the sales staff. "With these Chinese clothes, when you buy today and wash tomorrow you have to throw them away. But people go for price. I have no problem about the Chinese buying the mines. It's OK. No complaining. But the material business, it's bad."
While consumers benefit from cheaper prices, critics say the economy and the country lose out because factories close and jobs are lost.
Unhappiness with the Chinese has resonated deeply enough that Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has appealed to Zambians to be more positive about investment from Beijing such as a new hotel being built overlooking Victoria Falls.
"The Chinese government has brought a lot of development to this country and these are the people you are demonstrating against?" he said.
Many of the Chinese working in Zambia are sanguine about the criticism. Lui Ping, general manager in Lusaka for China's largest construction company in Zambia, the state-owned China National Overseas Engineering Corp, which has been building schools and hospitals, says resentment over Chinese workers is misplaced. He says he employs 15 Zambians for every Chinese but admits he prefers the imported labor.
"Chinese people can stand very hard work. This is a cultural difference. Chinese people work until they finish and then rest. Here they are like the British, they work according to a plan. They have tea breaks and a lot of days off. For our construction company that means it costs a lot more," Lui said.
"Some politicians for political reasons say they want to chase some Chinese out of the country. But it's only political. They won't do it," he said.
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