People & Power

King Cobra and the Dragon

As China increases its economic ties in Africa, has the continent entered a new era of colonialism?

China’s increasing engagement with Africa has become a subject of great controversy. The country’s commercial interests in Africa have been called a new form of colonialism by some in the West, but many Africans say that China is a better partner than Europe or the US. But what is the reality in the African nations with the longest standing links to China?

People and Power sent Sino-French academic Solange Chatelard and filmmaker Scott Corben to Zambia during the presidential elections in September 2011 to investigate whether Africa has entered a new era of colonialism with

Chinese firms maltreating workers and devouring the continent’s natural resources.

Thousands of Chinese have settled in Zambia and opened businesses, but relations have not always run smoothly.

In 2005, an accident in an explosives factory at the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine caused the deaths of dozens of Zambian workers. The incident focused Zambian minds on poor working conditions in Chinese-owned businesses and made Sino-Zambian relations a major issue in the following year’s presidential election.

The People and Power team spoke to a mineworker at the cemetery where the victims of 2005 were buried. He told them that working conditions were still poor and that those who spoke out often lost their jobs.

In October 2010, another incident attracted international attention, when Chinese supervisors at the privately-owned Collum coalmine in southern Zambia fired indiscriminately with shotguns at workers who had gathered in large numbers outside the gate demanding higher pay and better conditions.

The shooters were taken to court but the case was dropped after the 13 victims received compensation.

Of the two main candidates running for president in 2011, Rupiah Banda was the most outwardly pro-Chinese. He downplayed media reports of China colonising Africa saying that Beijing was too focused on problems in its own country.

Banda’s campaign focused instead on the Movement for Multi-party Democracy’s (MMD) record of 20 years of peace and prosperity in Zambia. While it was true that the country had steered clear of the troubles which had plagued neighbouring Zimbabwe, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, it was also true that much of the country’s new wealth had failed to make it into the hands of ordinary Zambians.

Michael “King Cobra” Sata of the Popular Front was Banda’s principal challenger. The colourful politician had campaigned on an anti-Chinese ticket in 2006 but People & Power found him in a more conciliatory mood this time round. He even admitted that Zambians had much to learn from the Chinese work ethic.

However, Sata also listed plenty of negatives: “The Chinese bring labourers to push wheelbarrows which is wrong. They do not follow the minimum wage when they are paying their people. The Chinese have no conditions of service. They don’t provide protective clothing. The list is endless.”

Sata’s promise to distribute the country’s wealth more evenly proved successful and he was elected president with a majority of 200,000 votes.

Zambia’s relationship with China dates back to the 1960s when the country’s first President Dr Kenneth Kaunda travelled to Beijing.

Kaunda turned to the Communist state to finance a major railroad project after Western countries turned him down. While the huge Tazara railway has steadily fallen into disrepair over the last four decades, relations between the two countries have strengthened.

Today, China needs Zambian copper to manufacture the goods it sells to consumers around the world. Zambia needs Chinese investment to fund infrastructure projects and provide jobs.    

The People and Power team spoke to many ordinary Zambians. Some agreed with claims that Chinese were maltreating Zambians, but others welcomed Chinese investment saying it was bringing development to the country.

Zambian workers at the Chinese financed Ndola Stadium claimed that their Chinese supervisers physically abused them; a successful Zambian businessman in Lusaka pointed out that nobody complained when the Chinese gave you a good price for your house.

We also spoke to a host of Chinese: from new arrivals to long-established residents; from employees on fixed contracts to entrepreneurs; from farmers to factory workers. Some Chinese had come to join family or friends, others had come to earn and save money or to try their luck in a new business.

The picture that emerged did not fit with media reports of “state-sponsored colonialism.”

Instead, Africa seemed to represent a land of opportunity for the many Chinese struggling to fend for themselves in increasingly competitive domestic markets. In Africa, they were able to build businesses and a base on which to raise a family. Labour was cheap, markets could be dominated, and, for some, rules could be circumvented. 

People & Power also spoke to representatives of Western interests in Zambia.

At a reception hosted by the Chinese Embassy the United States ambassador told Solange Chatelard that the Chinese should follow the US lead and “make a contribution.” He reiterated the words spoken by Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, during her visit in Zambia in June 2011: “While you’re doing well, you should also do good.” Some Zambians told us they found the policy patronising.

It is still too early to tell what Sata’s victory will mean for the future of Sino-Zambian relations, but there have been clues. Soon after his election, President Sata told the Chinese ambassador on national television that he welcomed Chinese investment but “your investment should benefit the Zambians and not the Chinese.”

If an incident such as Collum or Chambishi arises during Sata’s tenure, will King Cobra’s conciliatory mood continue, or will he turn dragon slayer?


The opening title sequence and title music of People and Power have changed. The new titles, which make their first appearance to introduce this film King Cobra and the Dragon, were designed in-house by the Al Jazeera Creative team, with new music composed by Eric Samothrakis.

The sequence is a dramatic progression of the previous People and Power theme, which portrayed a number of bronze figures working together to overcome a larger, more powerful individual. Now our signature figures, symbolic of ordinary people everywhere, are finding their way through a complicated urban maze to the freedom of the outside world – better representing the programme’s aim to bring you investigative documentaries that search out and reveal the truth, whatever obstacles lie in the way.