Zambia’s president is trying so hard to prove the Chinese aren’t running his country he’s insulted them

“See, what I meant was…”
“See, what I meant was…”
Image: Reuters/Feng Li/Pool
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President Edgar Lungu says he didn’t mean it as insult, just a fact Zambians should accept.

In a speech to the first Economics Association of Zambia last week, Lungu spoke on the need for unity in order to grow the country’s economy and fulfill its vision to be become a middle-income country by 2030. This vision would need the support of non-Zambians living in the country, particularly the Chinese, said Lungu.

“This cry about Chinese, Chinese, it’s not going to help us.”

In off the-cuff-remarks in between his prepared speech, Lungu pointed to China’s high population, arguing that it was inevitable that you would find Chinese all over. He compared them to one of Zambia’s largest tribes, the Bemba, saying because they were the majority, there were bound to be some thieves among them, but that didn’t mean all Bemba were thieves.

As he concluded, Lungu went on to say that his comments were not meant to cause offense.

“When I say Chinese are cockroaches, they survive everywhere….let’s just work with them.”

The Lusaka Times reported that Lungu suggested Zambians’ should learn this resilience from Chinese. Despite the guffaws and applause from the room, Lungu’s comments have come invited criticism, particularly for potentially isolating Bemba voters. Lungu may have meant it as a compliment, but comparing groups of people to cockroaches has had dire consequences on the continent before.

The day after his speech, Lungu met with a delegation from China International Water and Electric Cooperation at state house to discuss their investment in and construction of hydroelectric power stations. Zambia became a flashpoint between China and the United States’ policies in Africa.

Over the weekend, Zambia refuted claims by US National Security Advisor John Bolton that China was about to take over Zambia’s national power supplier. On Monday, China also hit back at Bolton, saying the US could learn a lesson and “not blurt things out.”

Earlier this year, rumors were rife that Zambia was so indebted to China that it was on the verge of handing over its national power supplier as collateral. While that was found to be untrue (for now), it all points just how much power China holds over any plans Zambia has for its economy.

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