Blog Detail

In Bed With China - The Story Of Zambia's Successful Marriage With China

Author: Dabwitso Zumani Phiri

Co-Author/Editor:  Bruce Hatimbula

Many relations are meted but not matched, and as much as many of them may court they may never marry or later end up in a nasty divorce. China’s interest in Africa and specifically in Zambia has sparked a lot of debate and variety of commentaries in the country. The portmanteau ‘Chambia’ is a name that has been adopted from mainstream media because of the questionable nature of Sino-Zambia relations. A relation I believe is a marriage. But, will this marriage last?


How did we get here?  

China and Zambia have shared diplomatic ties since 1964, when Zambia got its independence from Britain. The bilateral relations have improved drastically and the Chinese presence in Zambia is in abundance. They are everywhere and engage in all form of business; they are selling eggs in the markets, building hospitals and roads, running casinos and controlling the mines. This friendship has raised a lot of questions. Recently a renowned local television network cited that the Chinese had resumed the construction and possible usage of a large farming area as a burial site without proper clearance from the local authorities, signifying the many number of Chinese nationals leaving and dying within the Zambian jurisdiction.  Political players and the media in Africa and Zambia have accused the government of selling the country to China and calling it China’s first African colony. The government of Zambia maintains their position that the Sino - Zambia relations are a win-win agreement.

Ignore the misleading headlines that seek to malign our relationship with China by mischaracterizing our economic cooperation to mean colonialism. China does not have that record, neither does it seek a horse-and-jockey relationship with Zambia.”  Edgar Chagwa Lungu, President of Zambia


And as Dambisa Moyo alluded in her book, Dead Aid,

No one can deny that China is at least in Africa for the oil, the gold, the copper and whatever else lies in the ground. But to say that the average African is not benefiting at all is a falsehood, and the critics know it.’


Historical Framework and Growth of Sino-Zambia Relations.

The relations date back to pre-1964 when Zambia was fighting for Independence. China offered unwavering support to Zambia. The official diplomatic relations were signed on October 29, 1964. The bilateral relations have grown tremendously and the Chinese in nearly every street in the country. The Chinese government built the Zambia Tanzania railway, Levy Mwanawasa General Hospital, Ndola International Airport, Various Schools to mention but a few.


Although Zambia did not physically attend the Bandung summit of 1955, its diplomatic ties with China are traced from that summit. A meeting aimed at promoting Afro-Asian economic and cultural cooperation and opposing neo colonialism and colonialism.

This was the foundation of the relationship. All sitting Zambian presidents since 2001 have met with a current serving president of China.

The pinnacle of these relations happened when president Hu Jintao visited Zambia in 2007. During the visit, Hu said that Zambia was the first nation in Southern Africa sign diplomatic ties with China. The Forum on China Africa cooperation has been the medium of the modern Sino - Zambia relations.



The relationship was mutual and a win-win for both sides. China would provide Zambia with post independence political movements and Zambia would open up its doors for the newly founded people's republic of China for its diplomatic endeavors. The characteristic of this relationship is traced even today.


Chinese government provides loans, grants and offers scholarships for Zambian students to advance their studies in China, while Zambia provides an external market for China. This is a win-win agreement, because Zambia is a developing country and foreign investment is cardinal for its growth. With respect to trade and investment, Zambia has traded with the Western powers, and the grants and loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have not been yielded positive outcomes and have come with harsh conditions. The west has failed to invest in Africa and has only succeeded at exploiting the continent. China has proven to serve as a better option. And like any other investment, they’re bound to be problems, and the stakeholders who are not in favor of Chinese investment focus more on the dark side.

The focus should be on improving these ties by protecting the interests of citizens and better conditions for the loans and not chasing the Chinese to rely on the west completely.


Debt Trap Diplomacy and Neo-Colonialism

The west has been blaming China for the debt problems Zambia has, this is not entirely fair in that the West is also responsible, which was rightly put in an Op-Ed by Vito Laterza and Patience Mususa on Al-Jazeera,

It is a tragic irony that China is now being blamed by the West for allegedly doing exactly what the IMF has been doing for decades: providing unsustainable loans to countries in need to further plunge them into debt, weaken state capacity and open up national economies to international investors.


The Africa Confidential Report in its publication in September titled ‘bonds, bills and even bigger debts’ warned that Zambia risks losing its sovereignty. The report stated that the national television broadcaster has already been taken over by the Chinese and the power utility company is on the neck of being taken over. All these were among the speculations raised in the report, which the government through their chief spokesperson dubbed fake news. The national broadcaster is governed by an act of parliament, and the legislature has not sold the shares of the firm. The Chinese government played a cardinal role towards digital migration, and they funded the program in part, but a takeover was never on the agenda. And no talks were even made pertaining to the electricity generating firm.


The government of Zambia further stated that report was mere speculation and no facts or figures were accurately quoted, prompting them to file a lawsuit against Africa Confidential.

Zambia continues to provide a platform for China and its external diplomatic engagements and the Chinese continue to contribute greatly to the economic development of Zambia.


In December 2017, the minister of home affairs in Zambia appointed eight Chinese nationals as reserve police officers. A move that caused an outcry by Zambians on social media and other stakeholders. Although the move has backing of the law, in that the government is obliged to appoint reserve police officers of different nationals to the police, the appointments were revoked. Zambia has a Chinese community of over 80,000 according to data from the world population review and the salience of reserved offices cannot be overemphasized.

Indian nationals have been appointed as reserve officers before, but no concern was raised.  We need do not have to be skeptical about everything to do with the Chinese, but we should find ways to see how best they can integrate in the community and by placing laws and policy to protect local interests. Yes, Zambia needs China.


The Times of Zambia, the biggest newspaper in the country started printing part of their content in Chinese. A development that led to an outcry from the members of the public in the country. What might be seen as an initiative influenced by the Chinese government is not and should have been supported. In an age where print media is no longer becoming relevant, media houses need to think outside the box. The printing of the paper in mandarin Chinese will prompt the over 80,000 Chinese nationals in Zambia, who comprise of investors and workers to read and market their product in the local papers.


5. Chinese Contractors vs Local Contractors

A major threat to Chinese investments raised is that they are given contracts at the expense of local contractors. The government has tried to promote the local contractors by awarding them projects, but often, the results are not fruitful.

The local contractors do shabby works or abandon the work midway. Some will get the project and then sell it to a foreign contractor, that creates a breach in the deal. On the other hand, Chinese contractors have better work approval. They are more experienced and completing projects on time and have better work ethics. A ruling government is judged by the physical and feasible works they undertake while they are in power, and any ruling government will want to engage with people who will help them stay in power. In the long run, the local people benefit from the development undertaken. But to keep the local in line, the government is introducing dual contract systems, where a contract is awarded to a foreign contractor and a local contractor, and any foreign contractor that is awarded a contract should engage a local as a subcontractor, A win-win situation.  This will help the ethos of the work for the locals and i future, they will be able to undertake bigger projects without being subcontracted. It is not because the Chinese are being favoured, it is because they can do the work better and faster. The native people need to learn this from their China counterparts.


What next?

Before we continue to condemn China, we need to ask this question, where would Zambia be without China? Foreign investment is prone to have problems be it with China or the West. This includes low wages, poor working conditions, and investments that may not add direct benefits to the country at a given time.

And while this is true, the conditions of trade offered by China have been more beneficial than those of the West. The onus is now upon the Zambian government to improve the investment laws, create better and sustainable debt payment plans.


Professor Muna Ndulo, a Zambian lawyer based in the USA believes


to countries in the West worried about Chinese intrusion into what was once primarily ‘theirs’, I would say, it is now too late. Africa has discovered the best kept secret in the world and is poised to take full advantage of that discovery.


Its thus safe to say, you may not know what you have till it’s gone but better still you may not know what you have till you lose it!



Monitored by The EAZ Media Team © 2019 Lusaka

Leave a Comment: