For decades Zambia had been the flash point of anti-Chinese sentiment in Africa. Late president and outspoken opposition leader Michael Sata was unrivaled in his seething criticisms of both China and the Chinese who had migrated to his country. Prior to his election in 2011, he famously slammed the Chinese for paying “slave wages” at Chinese-owned mines and later suggested Beijing had designs on conquering Africa: “the Chinese are not here as investors, they are here as invaders,” he said.
Ironically, once Sata became president he completely reversed course with regards to the Chinese and became one of Beijing’s most enthusiastic partners in Africa. Although Sata’s views towards China evolved, Zambia’s reputation as a focal point of anti-Chinese attitudes, or ‘Sinophobia,’ in Africa remained, particularly among a significant number of international journalists, NGOs and academic scholars.
That Sinophobia in Zambia regularly expressed itself in all sorts of fanciful ways, ranging from false rumors that China was exporting cans of human flesh to be sold as food in Zambia or that China had planned to take over the country’s national television broadcaster. Western Journalists and scholars have also written extensively on the growing Chinese population in the country and suggested through their “research” and “reporting” that Chinese migrants are increasingly unwelcome by indigenous communities.
A lot of that western media reporting and scholarly research, though, was missing critical context. By examining Chinese migrants and companies in isolation of other groups (e.g. other races and nationalities), there is no way to contextualize the Chinese as being better or worse than others groups. Without understanding how Zambian perceptions of the Chinese are relative to those of other ethnic or foreign national groups, then a lot of the research and reporting on the subject is irreparably flawed.
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology master’s candidate Lu Yao recently embarked on one of the first academic studies to properly contextualize Zambian views of the Chinese within the culture’s broader racial/ethnic paradigm. Her research concluded that Zambians held mixed views of the Chinese (for example, not regarded as highly as white people but also not as bad as how Zambians feel about Lebanese migrants).
Yao, who incidentally was born in China but grew up in Zambia as the child of expatriate doctors, joins Eric & Cobus to discuss her recent findings and the politics of race and ethnic identity in Zambia.
- The BBC World Service: Can Chinese migrants integrate in Africa? by Karen Allen
- The BBC World Service: “I’m Zambian with my friends, Chinese at home”
- Africa Review: New dawn of the Chinese takeover in Zambia by Michael Chawe
Lu Yao is an M.Phil (Master of Philosophy) student in the Division of Social Science in Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Her research is on ethnical relations in Zambia and China-Africa links. Her current work takes a comparative approach to understand indigenous perception of non-indigenous people in Zambia.