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Three Chinese were killed and a Chinese-owned clothing factory destroyed in the Zambian capital of Lusaka last month. Photo: Weibo

Triple murder exposes tensions for Chinese businesses in Zambia

  • The killings occurred as the mayor of the country’s capital cracked down on perceived discrimination against local workers
  • Trouble on the ground contrasts with relationship pursued at state level between the two countries

Late last month in the Zambian capital of Lusaka, two men and a woman allegedly broke into a Chinese-owned clothing factory and killed three Chinese nationals before setting fire to the building.

The alleged attackers were reportedly employees and are under arrest; the victims were the factory’s bosses.

The Chinese embassy in Lusaka, condemned the “appalling and violent incident” and urged the Zambian government to take measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens in the country.

While the motivation for the killings is not known, they came hard on the heels of controversial raids on Chinese-owned businesses in the capital after Zambian workers complained they were not allowed to return home after work, apparently to prevent an outbreak of the pandemic coronavirus.
The killings and the raids have once again exposed tensions on the ground for Chinese and Africans as Beijing forges stronger commercial and political ties with the continent.

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Over the last month Lusaka mayor Miles Sampa has led a crackdown in the capital on Chinese-run businesses, including restaurants and barbershops, that he accused of discriminating against Zambians.

Sampa was filmed confronting Chinese managers of a truck assembling factory, after Zambian workers complained that they were not being allowed to go home.

Managers of various factories were reportedly forcing local employees to sleep at the workplace to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Sampa later apologised after protests from Chinese residents, the Chinese embassy and Zambian government officials.

He said he should not have physically gone to the businesses but rather engage relevant officers and institutions.

“I wish to apologise unreservedly to … the Chinese community in the city of Lusaka for the tone and language used towards one of their nationals,” he said.

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The confrontations are a sharp contrast to the “win-win” relationship Beijing and many African countries are pursuing at the state level.

In Zambia, Beijing has found raw materials for its industries and a market for its products, while Lusaka has benefited from Chinese funding for their motorways, power dams and railways.

Zambia, Africa’s second-largest copper producer, was among the first nations in Africa to receive a significant infrastructure investment from Beijing. In the 1970s, China financed the Tazara railway, which starts in Lusaka and ends in the coastal Tanzanian city of Dar es Salaam. At the time, it was Beijing’s most expensive and ambitious project in Africa and was the third-largest infrastructure project on the continent.

As recently as October, Li Jie, China’s ambassador to Zambia, said China would, “continue to uphold the principle of sincerity, real results, amity and good faith and the principle of pursuing the greater good and shared interests”.


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According to a United Nations 2019 world population study, an estimated 80,000 Chinese nationals live in Zambia, but the Zambian government puts the figure at less than 20,000.

Emmanuel Matambo, a Zambian academic and researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies, said that while diplomatic relations remained friendly, relations at the business and interpersonal level “have been laced with discord and disturbing signs of racism”.

Matambo said that while it “would be analytically remiss to conclude that the murders were a part of the general anti-Chinese sentiment … the prevailing trends cast a gloomy backdrop”.

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In the past couple of decades, serious incidents have soured the relations between Zambian workers and their employers. In 2005, an explosion in a factory at the Chambishi copper mine operated by NFC Africa Mining killed 46 people. Later that year, six workers were shot and wounded at the mine.

In 2010, 13 employees of the Collum coal mine, also Chinese-owned, were injured after two managers opened fire on a wage protest at the mine. The two managers were charged with attempted murder, but prosecutors dropped the charges in April of 2011.

Stephen Chan, a professor of politics and international relations at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, said private Chinese businesses often failed to observe labour laws, community relations, social sensitivities and investment in employee benefits and development.

“Private Chinese business relations with the Zambian [people] are a constantly repeating disaster,” he said.

He said he blamed China for failing to educate the people who left their home country for Africa. “On arrival, Chinese embassies do not provide any orientation and education programmes. Some Chinese associations, made up of long-term Chinese residents, do try to provide programmes of this sort, but they are not compulsory, uniform, or funded and staffed for follow-through,” Chan said.

Solange Guo Chatelard, a China-Africa scholar and a research associate at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium, said the killings last month in Lusaka were not an isolated case.

“There are [too] many innocent Chinese men and women losing their lives abroad in unspeakable circumstances,” she said.

“[I have] witnessed several cases myself in Zambia and have heard testimonies of similar fatal incidents in South Africa, Kenya, Senegal … almost everywhere I went across the continent.”

She said that in most cases the victim’s family or the victim’s employer will not seek to draw public attention to their plight. “They do not perceive public attention or a broader political scandal that might arise from it, to be helpful in these circumstances,” she said.

“What is a bump in the road for states is irreversible damage in the lives of ordinary people.”