African protests show China that investment comes with heavy price
Jonathan Clayton in Chambishi
President Hu cancelled one of the showpieces of his African tour yesterday after warnings of anti-Chinese protests. Mr Hu had been due to launch a new $200 million smelter at one of Zambia’s largest, and Chinese-run, copper mines.
He will stay away amid concerns that the visit, instead of underlining China’s financial commitment to Africa, would highlight complaints about low pay and working conditions.
Nowhere are such tensions more apparent than in the long swaying grass of the African savannah that almost covers the semi-circle of graves outside the Chambishi copper mine. Few visitors come these days. The relatives of the buried, mostly migrant workers, have moved on, too busy trying to scratch out a future to mourn the past.
But the 46 Zambian miners killed two years ago are far from forgotten. Workers arriving for the early morning shift cast uneasy glances at the makeshift graveyard outside the heavily guarded wrought-iron gates. For many, those graves have come to symbolise the price of China’s growing involvement with Africa “Nothing is coming back . . . we were hoping for much more, improvements in the local infrastructure, housing, but there is nothing,” said Harrison Simama, the town’s newly elected Member of Parliament.
Chambishi — little more than a sprawling township of lean-to shacks made of cardboard, wood and hammered-out tin cans — lies in the heart of Zambia’s copper belt. Despite the riches beneath its soil it has known little but poverty since copper was discovered in the 19th century. Many people thought that would change when China, with a supposedly non-colonial attitude, bought the mine in 1998 after years of mismanagement by the Zambian state copper concern.
With world copper prices low, no Western investor would touch the loss-making mine. Even though copper prices have trebled little has changed. Outside the mine’s perimeter fence there is no evidence of any building work.
Consequently, today it is difficult to find any local with a good word to say about the Government’s new “Asian friends”. A new smelter is under construction by a Chinese company rather than local contractors. “They are bad payers. They bring in their own people to do the jobs. If our leaders were not so corrupt they would not be selling our birthrights to them” said Moses, a digger in his mid-30s.
A mysterious explosion at the mine two years ago brought simmering tensions in to the open. Last Junesix workers were shot dead during demonstrations over delayed wages. The issue dominated December’s elections, which the Government won with a much-reduced majority amid allegations of fraud.
Guy Scott, the deputy leader of the Patriotic Front opposition party, told The Times: “The Chinese are no longer welcome. They are seen as cheats and our Government as crooks for allowing them to get away with it.”
Such criticisms are now common across the continent. Beijing has also found its new allies come with a price. President Hu was in Sudan yesterday, urging his main foreign supplier of oil to take a more conciliatory stand over UN demands for a peacekeeping force in Darfur, although not making his aid conditional on progress, as urged by Western critics who accuse Sudan of genocide.
It is clear, however, that China’s economic needs — which have already helped its trade with Africa to increase fourfold in a decade to about $55 billion (29 billion) — are set to triumph over any diplomatic niceties.
64% of Zambia’s exports are metals
48% of China’s African copper imports come from Zambia
63% per cent of China base metal imports from Zambia
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