The Zambian Freedom Statue in Lusaka, symbolising Zambia’s liberation from colonial rule. Erected in 1974 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Zambia’s independence, it honours freedom fighters who died during the anti-colonial struggle. Some critics say China’s involvement in Africa amounts to a new form of colonialism. Alex Mukuka / Wikimedia Commons.

China in Zambia: Special partner, or one of many?

Arve Ofstad, economist and former Norwegian ambassador to Zambia

The aim of this paper is to review China’s engagement with Zambia in relation to the activities of other partner countries as donors, lenders and investors. Some commentators seem to regard China’s presence in Zambia in recent years as unique; others claim that China always was a special friend that supported Zambia unconditionally, while others still regard China’s increased engagement as a new form of colonialism. This paper takes a broader view, and looks at similarities between the activities of China and other international actors as well as collaboration among them.

It largely focuses on the past two decades, during which China’s presence in Zambia has become more visible. The first section nevertheless recalls the early years when Chinese funding and construction of the Tazara railway was an important, but not the only, support to Zambia as a Frontline State supporting national liberation in southern Africa. The second section reviews international support to Zambia during the years of economic stagnation or decline (roughly 1975-2000), when China was generally absent. The third and fourth sections deal with aid programmes, loans and credits, investments and trade in mining and other sectors in recent years. The fifth section deals with some issues surrounding China’s alleged political influence in Zambia, followed by a conclusion.

The main finding is that, when situated in a longer time frame, China’s engagements with Zambia in terms of aid projects, loans and credits, and investments do not differ all that much from those of other major powers or development partners. The ‘traditional’ donors have been important contributors to Zambia’s development for decades. A major challenge today is to improve the transparency around the terms of Chinese grants and loans, including funding tied to Chinese companies. All development partners are pursuing a mixture of political, economic, and humanitarian motives. It is the responsibility of the Zambian authorities to safeguard Zambian interests and not fall victim to illicit payments or political pressures, while all international creditors, including the Chinese, need to be responsible lenders.