Zambian Hopeful Takes a Swing at China

A banner for President Levy Mwanawasa, whose government has worked with China.
A banner for President Levy Mwanawasa, whose government has worked with China. (By Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi -- Associated Press)
By Joseph J. Schatz
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 25, 2006

LUSAKA, Zambia -- Making a living is never easy in Kamwala, the cramped, grimy but bustling marketplace in downtown Lusaka, where Nally, a middle-aged mother of five, has been selling clothes out of a small wooden stall for the past 15 years.

But things took a turn for the worse, she said, when the Chinese moved in down the block a few years ago.

Chinese retailers operating in Kamwala have undercut her prices and lured away her customers, Nally said, holding up a pair of women's underwear that she would normally try to sell for 10,000 kwacha, or about $2.55.

"They can sell it for five or four" thousand kwacha, said Nally, who spoke on condition that only her first name be used because of concern about harassment by political operatives. "In the past years we were doing fine, but since the Chinese have come in, we were affected."

In the run-up to presidential elections this Thursday, Nally said she has listened with interest to one candidate in particular: Michael Sata, the man at the heart of an election-year skirmish that has drawn attention to China's growing economic and political clout in Africa, and the resentment it has caused among some Africans.

Mirroring its economic incursions into much of the rest of Africa, China has emerged in recent years as a significant presence in the Zambian economy, particularly in the copper industry -- Zambia's economic lifeblood -- but also in other sectors, including textiles, road construction and retail.

Sata, a former cabinet minister and the leading challenger to President Levy Mwanawasa, has called the Chinese profiteers, not investors, in a country where unemployment is about 50 percent and more than 73 percent of people live in poverty.

Sata has lambasted Chinese-run businesses, accusing them of neglecting the safety of Zambian workers, and threatened to run "bogus" Chinese investors out of the country. He has suggested that, if elected, he would recognize the independence of Taiwan, which China regards as a province that must return to the mainland's rule.

"Foreign relations must benefit all concerned. It must not be . . . one-way traffic," Sata said on privately owned Radio Phoenix this month. "Chinese investment has not added any value to the people of Zambia."

Chinese Ambassador Li Baodong said that China might sever diplomatic ties with Zambia if Sata became president and recognized Taiwan. The ambassador also raised the specter of a halt in Chinese investment.

The debate has been full of crude politics and xenophobia, but it has also served as an illustration of China's economic involvement in Africa giving way to political influence.

"China is a big player everywhere. . . . It's one of the biggest investors in Zambia," said Neo Simutanyi, a political analyst at the Institute of Social and Economic Research, a public policy organization in Lusaka.

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