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China’s willingness to invest in Africa has brought benefits to both that continent and the Chinese people. But if Chinese leaders do not quickly respond to the growing mass political consciousness in many African countries, all that has been achieved could crash around their ears.
Whether it is by democrats or dictators, China is accustomed to being welcomed with open arms throughout Africa. Recent regime changes, however, have revealed some layers of resentment which could thwart Beijing’s attempts to lay their hands on precious resources. The victory of the “rebels” in Libya, ill feelings in Namibia and the recognition of South Sudan’ independence could turn upside down long-standing relationships China has forged with Africa, mostly at the expense of Western competitors.
In September 2011 Zambia, a former British colony, changed its leadership, an event that has the potential to derail China’s ambitious investment drive. Michael Sata, alias “King Cobra,” was sworn in as Zambia’s president on September 23, 2011 after an overwhelming electoral victory over incumbent Rupiah Banda. The election result brought to an end the 20-year reign of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD). The new president, who leads the Patriotic Front party, promised Zambia’s poor that he would divvy up the revenue from copper production more efficiently and equally.
The MMD’s long reign may have produced a – deceptive – sense of security within the Chinese government: it did not expect the MMD would lose the election. The end of the Cold War has brought African governments a certain degree of stability. African rulers have since often been able to measure their tenures in decades rather than years. Where elections have been held the results have, by and large, favored incumbent leaders. However, if the “Arab Spring” has shown anything to the one-man-rule Middle East and African regimes of today, it is that nothing lasts forever.
The change of political leadership in Zambia, the largest copper producer in Africa, came as a really unpleasant wake up call for China, one of the world’s largest consumers of this precious metal. Sata’s electoral campaign played heavily on anti-Chinese sentiment, which, given that China is the largest investor in this low-developed country, looked to many observers a quite risky platform. But Sata had a good grasp of his audience and knew only too well how cunning the Chinese can be in seeking to achieve their objectives.
Published in Political Reflection Magazine Vol. 3 No. 3