Chinese-Built Zambian Smelter Stirs Controversy China is investing heavily in Zambia's Copperbelt Province, building smelters and bringing Chinese workers to the area. The foreign presence has been met with both praise and skepticism as Zambians say the industry is booming, but the Chinese are taking many of the jobs.
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Chinese-Built Zambian Smelter Stirs Controversy

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Chinese-Built Zambian Smelter Stirs Controversy

Chinese-Built Zambian Smelter Stirs Controversy

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And even as the U.S. invests in public health in Africa, the Chinese are making investments of their own. This week, we've been reporting on China's role in Africa.


And today, we go to Zambia. It's rich in copper, and China is eager for that metal. China has become increasingly active in Zambia's Copperbelt Province, once the preserve of colonial Britain.

Zambia's government welcomes Chinese investment and involvement, but Zambia's copper-workers have rioted against the Chinese, and the workers have a champion in Zambia's main opposition leader. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Officials in Zambia talk proudly and confidently about their southern African nation's relationship with China. It began in the independence era, when apartheid had taken hold in nearby South Africa.

Zambia played a pivotal role helping South Africa's black majority fight the liberation struggle against white minority rule. So the apartheid government cut off routes to South Africa's seaports for copper-exporting Zambia. That's when China stepped in, says Finance Minister Ng'andu Peter Magande.

Mr. NG'ANDU PETER MAGANDE (Finance Minister, Zambia): China was the only country that helped us in the '60s to build the Tazara Railway, some 3,000 kilometers of railway line. So to us, what is happening now is just China is continuing to come and looking at new sectors, like in the mining sector, in agriculture. So really, for us, it's nothing new.

QUIST-ARCTON: But the scale and breadth of China's recent interests and investments in Zambia are new, and they're moving at a truly dizzying pace. The finance minister said China was a very attractive partner.

Mr. MAGANDE: Currently, we believe that this is extremely important. Right now, we see a lot of Chinese investors coming to Zambia, so I'd say that in the 20th century, Europe was interested, and the West did exploit our raw materials. But this time, in the 21st century, we have found new investors that are coming back to try to help us to move ahead.

QUIST-ARCTON: But not all Zambians are pleased about China's new, enhanced role, and what some see as the re-colonization of Africa.

Mr. MICHAEL SATA (Opposition Leader, Zambia): And today, the Chinese are not here as investors. They are here as invaders.

QUIST-ARCTON: Michael Sata, nicknamed King Cobra, is Zambia's opposition leader. He heads the Popular Front and failed in his bid to become president two years ago, campaigning on an anti-China platform. Sata speaks of exploitation.

Mr. SATA: They bring Chinese to come and push wheelbarrows. They bring Chinese bricklayers, Chinese carpenters, Chinese plumbers. We have plenty of those in Zambia. Pushing a wheelbarrow is pushing a wheelbarrow. They're doing manual work. We don't need to import laborers from China. We need to import people with skill, with skills which we don't have in Zambia, but the Chinese are not going to train our people how to push wheelbarrows.

QUIST-ARCTON: There are plenty more complaints from Zambians about their new Chinese bosses, especially those helping to revive what was a run-down copper sector. There's praise, too.

I've come to the Copperbelt Province, where multimillion-dollar Chinese investment is highly visible. In the early morning haze, copper workers head off to the mines and to the giant copper smelter the Chinese have almost finished building here in Chambishi.

(Soundbite of machinery)

QUIST-ARCTON: The Chambishi Copper Smelter compound is no-frills, dominated by the huge electric-blue smelter. There are rows of dormitories for Chinese technicians with washing hanging out to dry, and I'm invited to sit and wait in a large, echoey boardroom.

Mr. ZI XUTING (Assistant CEO, Chambishi Copper Smelter Limited): My name is Zi Xuting. I'm assistant CEO here, Chambishi Copper Smelter Limited, Zambia.

QUIST-ARCTON: Zi Xuting is from Yunnan Province in southwest China. He's been living in Zambia for the past two years. He says the mighty smelter, which should open by the end of the year, will be a huge success.

Mr. XUTING: For the Zambians, what they got is tax, employment opportunities and industry development. For China, they can - got the copper. Chinese and Zambians is brothers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. XUTING: You have to know what the local people is thinking. We want to be the best, number one. It's a win-win project.

QUIST-ARCTON: Chambishi Copper Smelter's assistant CEO is most welcoming, but I was not permitted to speak to any of the Chinese or Zambian workers, almost all men, who came streaming out of the smelter construction site on lunch break in a sea of blue and yellow hard hats - perhaps because back in March, 500 Zambian employees were suspended after rioting over low wages and unsafe working conditions. About 50 workers were fired.

George Jambwa, a Zambian journalist turned public relations executive, was the spokesman at Chambishi at the time.

Mr. GEORGE JAMBWA (Public Relations Executive, Chambishi Copper Smelter, Zambia): I tell you, it was tense. The Zambians started throwing stones, and the workers now started damaging property. So that's when the Chinese workers now came out with all sorts of weapons to come and protect the property. So now that's when there was commotion. The police were called in.

QUIST-ARCTON: Zambia's finance minister, Ng'Andu Magande, said cultural differences and expectations should not preclude a work regime and ethic that all sides can accept.

Mr. MAGANDE: The Chinese were very frank with us. So they told us when we come to your countries, tell us your procedures. Tell us your traditions. Tell us your systems. Then we can sit down, and we tell you our systems, and then together, we find a brand of what is going to win.

QUIST-ARCTON: Such talk simply infuriates Zambia's opposition leader, Michael Sata. A Chinese-run copper mine explosion killed about 50 Zambian workers three years ago, proof of dangerous labor practices, said Sata, which he claimed were widespread throughout Africa.

Mr. SATA: If you don't have protective clothings, you have no education allowance, you have no hospital facilities, if you don't go to work the following morning because you are sick, you are fired, it is not only Zambia, it's the whole Cape to Cairo where the Chinaman is. That's the way they look at us. They have no regard for us. They have no regard for our independence. They have no regard for any black person as a human being. Those are very abnormal conditions, which a civilized society, in this century, cannot accept.

QUIST-ARCTON: But not all Zambians are opposed to the Chinese. Here in Chambishi Township market, there's considerable support.

Ms. BERNADETTE MALAMA: My name is Bernadette Malama. I'm in Chambishi Township, I'm a teacher. What they're doing here that employed our children, okay? We don't have any problems passed back. We had a lot of appeals that were failing here in Chambishi, but at the moment, they have been employed by the Chinese investors.

QUIST-ARCTON: How is it living with the Chinese as neighbors?

Ms. MALAMA: They are just almost like us. We communicate with them through sign language and sometime broken English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: Have you learned any Chinese?

Ms. MALAMA: (Chinese spoken). That is thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MALAMA: And I'm learning. We are learning. So we'll stay with them. We are going to learn their language.

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: Thank you, perhaps, but the verdict is still out on whether to date, China's involvement here in Zambia can be considered a real success. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Chambishi, on the copper belt.

AMOS: Tomorrow, the blossoming relationship between Chinese merchants and West Africa.

Unidentified Man: Africa has become more attractive because of China. It's like a young girl that suddenly is being vied by many countries.

AMOS: For more on our series on China's influence in Africa, go to

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