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Is China taking over Zambia?

China’s relationship with Zambia, has come under “new” and heavy criticisms since 03 September this year, after a report by Africa Confidential that the Zambian government plans to sell strategic state-owned Zambian corporations to Chinese companies because Zambia is unable repay its debts owed to China.

Sino-Zambian relations, although dating back to 1965, saw a new dawn with China’s acquisition of Chambishi Copper mining in 1998, and the Chinese state-owned enterprise, China Non-Ferrous Metal Mining Company’s construction of a special economic zone in Chambishi in 2009. Chinese investment flows into Zambia grew from $6 million in 2000 to over $368 million in 2017. Over same period, Chinese companies also built stadiums, roads, airport, hydropower dams, and real estates in Zambia.

But China’s rising presence in Zambia has generated an explosive backlash both within Zambia and abroad. This morning, I read an article from the prestigious Face2Face Africa by Ismail Akwei with the headline, “Three events that prove Zambia – or Chambia – is China’s first African colony”. I also came across a Youtube documentary by Dave Partner, captioned, “Breaking news: China takes over Zambian government!”

But are claims that China is taking over Zambia true? My answer is no, but there are some issues which deserve serious scrutiny and  public outcry.

Let us focus on the claims from Africa Confidential and Face2Face Africa that China is taking over Zambia, before examining those aspects of Zambia-China relations that should seriously raise eye-brows. Ismail claims that the fact that ‘Zambia’s state-owned newspaper [Times of Zambia] publishes an article in Chinese language Mandarin’ is one of three “proves” that China is taking over Zambia.

Zambian Workers on Site at the Chinese built and owned Chambishi Copper Smelter

The New York Times has a section in Mandarin, likewise British Broadcasting Company (BBC). But we don’t interpret these as China taking over Britain nor the US or even the New York Times. Moreover, I don’t understand why Zambian news outlets are not allowed to publish in Mandarin. Especially when, as the Ministry of Information and Communication made clear, the intention was to draw Chinese readers to the paper, but also as she omitted, to lessen Chinese concerns over anti-Chinese feelings in Zambia.

Claiming that Times of Zambia publishing an article in Mandarin is symptomatic of China takeover of Zambia is frivolous, same as all statements by most of my  “pan-Africanist” friends that learning Mandarin is submitting to Chinese control of Africa. Millions of Chinese are studying English, but they don’t believe that negates their “Chineseness”. Neither should we see studying or publishing in Mandarin as negating our “Africaness”. Instead we should allocate more resources to learning African languages and Mandarin. Knowing more doesn’t kill.

Further, the Africa Confidential report argued that China has loaned over $8 billion to Zambia since Zambian President Edgar Lungu came to power after the death of Michael Chilufa Sata in 2014. The paper argues these loans are part of a “predatory Chinese infrastructure finance” strategy wherein uses unsustainable loans to take over strategic foreign assets.

“A major worry of the IMF and US is that China’s BRI strategy is first to encourage indebtedness, and then to take over strategic national assets when debtors default on repayments. The state electricity company ZESCO [formerly Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation) is already in talks about a takeover by a Chinese company…The state-owned TV and radio news channel ZNBC is already Chinese-owned. The long-term outcome could be effective Chinese ownership of the commanding heights of the economy and potentially the biggest loss of national sovereignty since independence,” the report added.

Zambia’s debt to China is an issue that deserves legitimate concern, likewise the high cost of some of these Chinese projects in Zambia. But we cannot address these problems with hyperbole or myth of China takeover of Zambia. For example, Zambia’s Minister of Finance, Margaret Manakatwe has refuted claims in the AC report that over 67% of Zambia’s external debts are owed to China and that Zambia is defaulting on its loan repayment deadlines. She argued emphatically that Zambia has never defaulted in paying her debts, and Chinese loans to Zambia accounts for less than 30% of Zambia’s total external debts.

Zambia Minister of Finance Magarate Mwanakatwe

Several observers are right that we should take Margaret’s assertion with a grain of salt, but my deepest frustration with these critics is their inability to also take Africa’s Confidential Report with a grain of salt. First, why does the report focus on China who owns just 43% of Zambia’s debt ( when you take into account the loans the AC report suggests the government has excluded from its debt portfolio)? Who are those owing the other 63%? And if the amount of debt owed by a country to another country is symptom of colonisation why aren’t we taking up our guns against these countries owning the 63%, accusing them of colonisation? The same countries that owe the 63% of Zambia’s debts are those who also own its largest copper mines, yet the have not been treated with scorn as the Chinese.


As I have argued in a book chapter I am currently writing for the Australian Centre on China in the World yearbook, anyone who has lived in Zambia can attest to the electricity and infrastructure deprivation that country was, and to an extent is still, facing. I was in Zambia in 2015 for five months, during that time, the epileptic electricity supply was a disaster for businesses and households. However, that same year, China and Zambia agreed on a $1.5 billion loan for Chinese construction of Kafue Lower Gorge dam. At completion of the project in 2019, the country is expected to put to rest much of its electricity problems. In addition, to according to Zhou Qinqguo, the project’s manager, “Since the beginning of construction, Kafue Gorge Lower Hydropower Station has created nearly 10,000 jobs for Zambia and generated 1 billion yuan (157 million U.S. dollars) worth of tax revenue for the Zambian government”.

This does not imply we shouldn’t criticize some of Zambia’s government actions, possibly instigated by their close ties to China. For example, Chinese citizens physically and psychologically abusing Zambians. And  the cancellation of Kenyan law professor and Pan-Africanist, Patrick Loch Otieno (PLO) Lumumba visa to Zambia who was scheduled to speak at a student graduation ceremony early this month, which Ismail cites in his article on Face2Face Africa, is a threat to freedom of speech.

African governments cannot kow-tow to Chinese authoritarian dictates to squeeze out the little freedom of speech left across the continent. But even powerful nations like Britain and South Africa have shown tendencies to submit to Chinese interests when it comes to their treatment of Beijing’s critic like the Dalai Lama.

However, banning a critic of a diplomatic partner from entering your territorial space is not a sign of Chinese takeover of Zambia. It may reflect strong ties between China and Zambia, or politicians putting economic interest ahead of social rights and justice, after all friends do things for friends. In Africa we say, “you wash my back, I wash your back”. But this, bowing to external pressure to suppress freedom of speech and movement, is something we, in Africa, should be genuinely concerned about. Especially in light of Beijing’s disdain for freedom of anti-Chinese speech.

In addition, while Ismail’s reference to case where two Chinese citizens were arrested in Livingston, on the border with Zimbabwe training officials is not evidence of Chinese taking over Zambia, Chinese involvement in poaching in Africa should be matter of urgent concern. I am shocked by Ismail’s claim that two Chinese training, possibly, poachers in Zambia is evidence of China taking over Zambia. I don’t know if it is that easy for one country to take over another. But there are several reports confirming that Chinese nationals are deeply involved in poaching across Zambia and Africa. Even so, Beijing has taken efforts to discourage poaching in Africa. For example, by banning the important of protected species and ivory to China.

Donkeys stolen, skinned in Africa to feed Chinese demand, Credit Quartz

China has played a positive role in Zambia’s economy, by constructing vital infrastructure and investing in mines and special economic zones, but this investment has been associated with high debts owed by Zambia to China, as well as Zambia’s government tendency to stifle freedom of speech and association in order to protect Chinese interest.  Th issue of debts and Zambia’s government actions of stifling freedom of speech that is likely to hurt Chinese image in Zambia deserves public criticism. But even this challenges are not “proves” of China taking over Zambia. In fact, there may be no such proof.




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