The Age of the Dragon China's Conquest of Africa

China is conquering Africa as it becomes the preferred trading partner of the continent's dictators. Beijing is buying up Africa's abundant natural resources and providing it with needed cash and cheaply produced consumer goods in return.

By and Thilo Thielke

Thomas Mumba was a devout young man. He spent his free time studying the Holy Scriptures and directing the church choir at the United Church of Zambia in his hometown of Chambeshi. Mumba, a bachelor, was also committed to abstinence -- from beer and from sex before marriage. A larger-than-life depiction of Jesus Christ surrounded by a herd of sheep still hangs in his room. The poster is pure "Made in China" kitsch, like most things here in the Zambian copper belt, located more than a six hours' drive north of the capital Lusaka.

Mumba, a shy, slight young man, bought the Chinese-made religious image at a local market and hung it up at home. It was cheap, cheaper than goods from Europe, at any rate. Mumba's Chinese Jesus cost him 4,000 kwacha, or about 75 cents. "It was his first encounter with the evil empire," says Thomas's mother Justina Mulumba, two years after the accident that would change her entire life.

Thomas Mumba died on April 20, 2005 when an explosives depot blew up in the Chambeshi copper mine. He had just turned 23 and had been working in the mine for two years. To this day, no one knows how many people died that day, because the mine's Chinese owners attempted to cover up what they knew about the accident. Besides, they had kept no records of who was working near the explosion site on the day of the accident.

According to the memorial plaque, there were 46 victims, but it could just as easily have been 50 or 60. Only fragments of the remains of most of the dead were recovered. Mukuka Chilufya, the engineer who managed the rescue team, says that his men filled 49 sacks with body parts that day. The Chinese have deflected all inquiries about the explosion.

Justina Mulumba wears a mint-green dress as she kneels at her son's grave, whispering almost inaudibly: "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do." The cemetery is by the side of the road, only a short distance from the plant gates. Chinese trucks drive by, churning up the dry African soil and briefly coating the entire cemetery in a cloud of red dust.

The drivers are in a hurry to get their trucks, filled with copper, to the port of Durban on the Indian Ocean, where the copper will be loaded onto ships bound for China. Mumba wasn't the only one whose fate was sealed by copper. All of Zambia depends on copper, which is by far this southern African country's most important export, well ahead of cobalt. Copper accounts for more than half of all its export revenues.

The precious metal attracted scores of white colonizers to the country north of the Zambezi River in the early 20th century. The British flag flew over Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was then called, until 1964. That was followed by the era of independence and of Socialist leader Kenneth Kaunda, who initially benefited from rising copper prices.

Kaunda, a religious man, was obsessed with bringing education to the people of his country. But he had little understanding of economic matters. He had so many schools built that the government eventually found itself lacking the funds to pay the teachers. When Kaunda decided to nationalize the foreign-owned mines to raise cash for the government's coffers, it was his bad luck that copper prices soon plunged.

Feeding China 's Hunger for Raw Materials

In the early 1990s, Zambia abandoned its socialist planned economy, Kaunda withdrew from politics and the ongoing slump in copper prices precipitated an economic crisis. In the late 1990s, when then-president Frederick Chiluba felt compelled to give in to pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to privatize the unproductive, unprofitable state-owned mines, the price of a ton of copper was barely $900.

At the time, no one in Africa -- or, for that matter, in New York, London or Geneva -- foresaw India's and China's rise as economic powers, or the attendant thirst for resources. When rising demand suddenly drove up copper prices to previously unanticipated levels, it was yet another stroke of bad luck for poor Zambia that the country had already sold off much of its copper-mining rights to the Australians, Canadians, Indians and Chinese.

A ton of copper costs $8,000 today. Zambian mines are currently producing 500,000 tons a year, a number that could soon increase to 700,000. This is good for the foreign mine owners, but the Zambians see next to nothing of the profits.

The Chinese need the copper for their booming industry. The metal is used primarily to make wires, cables, integrated circuits and metal products like pipes and toolmaking machines -- in other words, in almost every branch of industry, from automobile manufacturing to the construction industry.

By 2004 China was already the world's second-largest importer of copper ore, after Japan. "If copper scrap and residues are added, China imports a quarter of the world's copper production," writes the research department of Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank in a report titled "China's Commodity Hunger." The report concludes that the demand for copper will "remain high."

Privatization couldn't have gone worse for the Zambians. But in the age of the dragon descending upon Africa, things could get far worse. Michael Chilufya Sata sits in a cramped, smoke-filled office behind mountains of paper, smoking one cigarette after another. Sata, who as head of the Patriotic Front is Zambia's most important opposition leader, is also a demagogue.

Graphic: Hungry Tiger

Graphic: Hungry Tiger

For many Zambians Sata is a saint, but for others he is a reincarnation of the devil -- that includes the government, which has had him thrown in jail repeatedly. In one instance he was accused of sabotage when he and his supporters allegedly smuggled explosives into a copper mine, and he was recently arrested on charges of having provided false information about his financial circumstances.

Sata captured more than 29 percent of the vote in the September 2006 presidential election, while the winner in that race, current President Levy Mwanawasa, claimed 43 percent. But Sata believes that the election was rigged. According to opinion polls, he was initially clearly in the lead in the capital and in the copper belt. But when the tide turned in favor of the incumbent, Sata cried election fraud and violence erupted in the streets of Lusaka for several days.

If there is one issue which Sata uses to mobilize the masses, it is the Chinese. He has warned voters that they plan to export their dictatorship to Africa, colonize the continent and introduce large-scale exploitation. Unlike Western investors, says Sata, the Chinese have little interest in the Africans' well-being.

The politician quickly talks himself into a rage. Chinese have little interest in human rights, he says. They are only interested in exploiting Africa's natural resources, which they have carted off using their own workers and equipment, and without having paid a single kwacha in taxes. Sata sums up his position as follows: "We want the Chinese to leave and the old colonial rulers to return. They exploited our natural resources too, but at least they took care of us. They built schools, taught us their language and brought us the British civilization."

A majority of Zambians likely agree with Sata. On his recent and third trip to Africa, Chinese President Hu Jintao canceled his planned visit to the Zambian copper belt at the last minute, fearing demonstrations by disgruntled workers and the resulting embarrassing TV images. Only last year, protestors in Chambeshi were injured when police fired into their midst.


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