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No One China in Africa
Photo by Margaretta Soehendro

No One China in Africa

Miners' success in improving working conditions at a Chinese-owned copper mine in Zambia tells one story about Chinese economic influence on the continent. But it's too early to say what the country's investments in Africa add up to, says UCLA sociologist Ching Kwan Lee.

If you're talking just about economic domination, then let's talk about economic domination instead of using the term colonialism.


In 2008, the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine agreed to key demands of unionized Zambian copper miners: that it would no longer hire local employees on a casual basis and that it would transition contract employees to permanent jobs.

"This is a very significant development. It means that the miners have been able to revert this tendency of casualization, which we know around the world is going the other way," said Ching Kwan Lee, a UCLA sociology professor who conducted recent fieldwork in Zambia, at a colloquium on Jan. 8, 2009, sponsored by the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, UCLA Centers for African Studies and Chinese Studies, and the sociology department. More than 60 people attended the event.

Before the Foreign Engineering and Construction Corporation (NFC), a Chinese state-owned company, bought Chambishi in 1997, the mine had been closed for more than a decade. When it reopened, the management followed the practice of other privately owned mines in the so-named Copperbelt region by hiring most local workers on a contract basis rather than in the permanent positions they once had when the mines were nationalized. Chambishi had the smallest number of permanently-employed local workers in the region, and it also paid them the least. Chinese miners at Chambishi are hired and paid under a different system: two- to three-year contracts with salaries going directly to the miners' families back in China.

Lee, who joined UCLA this fall from the main University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, said the success of the miners' union in negotiations owed to a combination of factors.

The Zambian Chambishi miners engaged in wildcat strikes, which often turned violent, at the highest rate in the region. Lee said that the wildcat strikes, while successful, could not by themselves have led to the gains of the new collective agreement. Zambia's multi-party democracy and a 2008 special election, following the death of President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, also played a large part, she said. Opposition candidate Michael Sata ran on an anti-China platform and roused "resource nationalism" and anti-Chinese sentiments, although he would not win.

With frequent strikes and growing antagonism against them, the Chinese managers had to find a way to appease the local miners. Given the place-oriented nature of extraction mining, they didn't have the option to move the business elsewhere.

The Zambian miners followed the London Metal Exchange and knew how sharply copper prices had increased in the past few years. They also benefited in having a well-organized, long-established union negotiating on their behalf, Lee said.

The local Chambishi miners' success, however, cannot be replicated easily in the same industry in other countries or other industries in Zambia. Lee said the circumstances were just right for the miners, citing construction as an industry in which casual labor prevails in Zambia because of a less able union and the temporary and mobile nature of the work.

"I don't think anybody can come to any conclusion about China in Africa... the Chinese have been there for a short period of time, and so we won't have quick answers," Lee said.

After interviewing Chambishi's Chinese managers, Lee said, she concluded that a colonial, exploitive mindset was not behind the low wages and low number of permanent employees. The managers were not members of the elite or highly-educated classes in China and had experience neither with labor unions nor with laborers' receiving appropriate, competitive wages. Their opposition to permanent positions went with their ardent capitalism and their personal experience with a socialist system of permanent employment, Lee said.

At the talk Lee sought to dispel the narrow view that a powerful China is imposing itself on a passive and weak African continent, which is not homogenous and contains 54 countries with different agendas. She said the current discourse is politically motivated and "is totally wrong-headed and is not helping us in any way."

"I am seeing all sorts of pressures from below that are not reported in the media. But you actually see the Chinese reacting [to locals' demands]. It's more fluid than the term colonial domination or colonial power assumes," Lee said.

Lee also disagreed with the view that foreign investment implies a colonial relationship.

"If you're talking just about economic domination, then let's talk about economic domination instead of using the term colonialism, which has too many layers of reality and historical realities that don't apply today," Lee said, referring to the absence of any Chinese military occupation or political rule on the continent.