Skip to navigationSkip to content

China is in the middle of diplomatic spat with one of its oldest allies in Africa

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (R) shakes hands with Zambia's President Edgar Chagwa Lungu at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing March 30, 2015.
Reuters/Feng Li
Old friends.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Zambian authorities have detained 31 Chinese citizens on suspicion of illegal copper mining, according to Chinese officials who have formally complained about the arrest.

“The government has always asked Chinese companies and citizens to respect the laws of the countries where they operate and does not shield illegal action… But China opposes selective law-enforcement actions against its citizens” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a news briefing this week.

Chinese officials claim Zambian authorities haven’t provided evidence of any illegal activity. The foreign ministry added that a pregnant woman and two workers sick with malaria were among those arrested, grounds for humanitarian release. According to Chinese press based in Zambia, the arrested Chinese were allowed to fly back to China (link in Chinese) yesterday afternoon.

Zambia is one of China’s oldest partners in Africa, but is often cited as an example of what can go wrong with Chinese investment in Africa. As more Chinese companies have entered Zambia’s mining sector over the last decade and a half, labor disputes between local workers and their Chinese employers have become common.

A few particularly egregious cases have attracted global attention. In 2005, 52 Zambian workers were killed at an explosives factory near Chambeshi, a town in Zambia’s copper belt. In 2010, Zambia charged two Chinese managers with attempted murder after they opened fire on protesting Zambian workers. Two years later, Zambian workers killed a Chinese supervisor at the same mine.  

In a way, China’s experience in Zambia and this week’s arrest also demonstrate the push and pull between China and its African partners—that Beijing doesn’t always have the upper hand in its ties on the continent. ”African governments, leaders and communities can and do actively engage in political and community actions that influence their relationships with China,” Agnes Ngoma Leslie, outreach director for the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida, wrote in a paper on China-Zambia relations in December.

The southern African country first extended diplomatic recognition to China in 1964, just five days after gaining independence from Britain. By 2015, China had become Zambia’s largest foreign investor, and last year, China’s ambassador to Zambia declared it one of Beijing’s main partners.

Bilateral trade, mostly Zambian exports of copper to China, has expanded from just $100 million in 2000 to $4 billion in 2016. Chinese investment in the country includes infrastructure, agriculture, and energy projects like a 750 megawatt-hydro-power station in Zambia’s Chikankata district. 

Yet, labor disputes and and anti-Chinese sentiment have become part of the national discourse. The country’s former president Michael Sata won the presidency in 2011 in part by campaigning on anti-Chinese sentiment and raised the minimum wage. Zambia’s current president Edgar Lungu has taken an especially harder line against perceived opposition, though Lungu hasn’t expressed animosity towards the Chinese in the country in particular.

“These recent arrests could play into a broader picture of strong central state pushback against external players,” says Hannah Postel, a research associate at the Center for Global Development in Washington, who has done field work in Zambia. The public rationale for the arrests could also not be the full picture, according to Postel.​

The arrested Chinese were working in Zambia’s Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), one of the largest copper producers in Africa, with backing from the local government. KCM reportedly owes contractors, including Chinese firms, at least $200 million. In December, one of its contractors, a Chinese company, China Jianxi JCHX, went on strike over the owed payments.

🌍 Keep up with developments and emerging industries in Africa.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.