The Michael Sata presidency: “Will China Lose Zambia?”

October 4, 2011

The inauguration of Michael Sata as the new president of Zambia on 23 September attracted little media attention. This is somewhat surprising, considering that Sata, in opposition, has been quoted in most China/Africa articles as the spokesman of discontent with the practices of Chinese investors. Zambia has been both an important and early destination of Chinese invesment and a country where problems with it have been particularly well-publicized. Sata has been talking about expelling Chinese, but also Indian and Lebanese traders from the country; expropriating and redistributing to the poor part of the shares of foreign-invested companies: and recognising Taiwan as an independent nation. So will his election be a turning point for China’s African engagement?

Illustrating that the battle lines regarding Chinese investment are far more complex than the usual picture of human rights versus authoritarianism, Sata regards Robert Mugabe as his role model. This rarely comes up in Western media — although Sata’s hubris has been pointed out in Sarah Hardus’s research — yet it suggests that China has been the butt of Sata’s anger simply because it has been the most active investor. Showing that the battle lines are also complex in Chinese media, the largely liberal Southern Weekend,  for which the comparison to Mugabe is a negative one, published a feature on Sata’s election, entitled “Will China Lose Zambia?”

The article says that during the campaign, the Chinese embassy advised its citizens to stay inside, stock up on necessities and be prepared for an emergency. But, apart from the pelting of a Xinhua News Agency van with stones (nobody was hurt and the agency, apparently, didn’t report it) there was no anti-Chinese violence. (A farm ran by a state-owned Chinese company, Nongken, even provided its Zambian workers a van to transport them to the polling station.)

After his inauguration, Sata’s first diplomatic act was to meet with the Chinese ambassador. He declared that Zambia still welcomed Chinese investors, although they “must also benefit Zambian people.” The article concludes firmly that business will pretty much continue as usual, despite Sata’s capacity for the unpredictable.