Sinophobia In Zambia Is More Complex Than The International Press Presents

Reporting on anti-China sentiment in this African country is lacking context.

Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden are the duo behind the China Africa Project and hosts of the popular China in Africa Podcast. We’re here to answer your most pressing, puzzling, even politically incorrect questions, about all things related to the Chinese in Africa and Africans in China.

For decades Zambia had been the flashpoint 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 plans to “conquer” Africa saying, “the Chinese are not here as investors, they are here as invaders.”

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, non-governmental organizations and academic scholars.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Zambian President Michael Sata during a welcoming ceremony in Sanya, on the southern Chinese resort island of Hainan, on April 6, 2013.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Zambian President Michael Sata during a welcoming ceremony in Sanya, on the southern Chinese resort island of Hainan, on April 6, 2013.
POOL New / Reuters

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 about 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, 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 an academic study that contextualized Zambian views of the Chinese within the culture’s broader racial/ethnic paradigm. Her research concluded that many Zambians held mixed views of the Chinese (for example, they are not regarded as highly by some Zambians as those perceived as “white” but also not seen as negatively as Lebanese migrants).

Yao, who incidentally was born in China but grew up in Zambia as the child of expatriate doctors, joins Eric & Cobus ― in the podcast above ― to discuss her recent findings and the politics of race and ethnic identity in Zambia.

Join the discussion. Do you think the Chinese deserve the bad reputation they have in Zambia, or are you persuaded by researchers like Lu Yao who say the story is far more complicated than how it is characterized in the international press? Let us know what you think.

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