There was an interesting story in New Century Weekly (新世纪周刊) a few weeks back that is worth a look (available here in Chinese). It is a lengthy investigative piece by journalists Chen Zhu and Zhang Boling on the shooting of local workers at a Chinese-owned coal mine in southern Zambia, following protests over working conditions and lack of pay. Eleven were injured after two Chinese supervisors, apparently fearing for their lives, opened fire with shotguns. The supervisors (pictured) were later arrested on charges of attempted murder but have since been released on bail. The incident has led to protests outside the Chinese Embassy in the Zambian capital of Lusaka and has again put Zambia’s relations with China under the spotlight. Tensions will likely be further exacerbated if the trial is perceived to be a whitewash, as some have predicted. The case has also received some coverage in the international media.
The New Century Weekly article traces the origins of the shooting to long-standing problems in the management of the mine. At the centre of the story is the mine owner, Xu Jianxue, a Jiangxi native who first went to Zambia in the early 1990s as a translator for a Chinese company. He ended up staying after the project ended, establishing a construction company that went on to win a series of big infrastructure contracts from the Zambian government. Business was so successful that Xu invited his four brothers to join him in 2000. When Zambia began selling mineral rights in 2003, Xu secured a number of concessions near the southern town of Sinazongwe. Despite the difficulties investors have traditionally had in the area, he has apparently been able to turn over a healthy profit for his venture, Collum Coal Mining Industries.
Xu is described vividly in the article as a believer in “Mao Zedong thought” and as sporting a Mao-style haircut. He is cast as a throwback to an earlier China, reliant on guanxi and bribes to secure business and ignorant of modern management practices. Xu and his brothers are said to live very comfortably in Lusaka, leaving the day-to-day running of the mines in the hands of friends and relatives who have followed them to Zambia from Jiangxi. These men, the authors claim, are mostly uneducated labourers with no language skills, who find themselves suddenly thrust into senior positions on their arrival. They live in a gated compound and have little understanding of local culture. There are 70 Chinese managers working at the mine, who are responsible for around 600 local workers.
The authors claim that the root of the problem is that the workers are employed on temporary contracts, which means they do not receive the food, housing and medical benefits stipulated by Zambian labour laws. Workers are also, according to one Chinese source quoted in the article, subjected to occasional physical beatings. These conditions have generated a series of clashes between labour and management, of which the shooting is only the most recent and severe. There have been repeated strikes and the local government threatened to close the mine in 2006 until eventually being dissuaded, probably through a combination of bribery and pressure from the central government.
The article is interesting not only for the information it unearths, but for the tone it deploys. Criticisms of Chinese companies operating in Africa are commonplace in the western media but not in China, at least not in a publication as prominent as New Century Weekly. No doubt part of the reason lies in the fact that Collum Coal Mining is not formally a Chinese entity; it is registered in Zambia and has no parent company in China. This perhaps permits a greater degree of licentiousness than might normally be the case. Indeed, Xu’s company is contrasted in the article with the supposedly more responsible behaviour of Chinese state-owned and private enterprises, both of which are subject to tighter supervision and regulation by the Ministry of Commerce. Disparaging quotes from staff at China’s Embassy in Zambia make clear they are frustrated by the free-wheeling behaviour of Chinese entrepreneurs like Xu, whose pursuit of profit risks tarnishing China’s image in Africa.
The final point to make is that the article again highlights the dangers of thinking in terms of a monolithic “China Inc.” in Africa. There are a wide range of Chinese actors operating on the continent, from individual entrepreneurs to huge state-owned oil companies, each of whose interests may run contrary to those of others. Struggling to manage these different forces is the Chinese government, whose ability to offer strategic direction is itself hampered by the existence of competing bureaucratic objectives between departments. The latest incident in Zambia shows that the story of “China-in-Africa” is as much about the freeing-up of market forces in China and the subsequent loss of central government control as anything else.