China may be a top priority for the new U.S. administration but Beijing has its own priorities: It's on a worldwide quest for raw materials and fuel to supply its growing economy. And that quest has led to unprecedented Chinese interest in Africa. China's president, Hu Jintao is visiting the continent again this week. It's his fourth trip there. Hu's talking foreign aid and investment to consolidate China's booming trade with Africa. Laura Lynch reports from Zambia on China's African adventure.
photos: Laura Lynch
Lynch: Old fashioned brawn and sweat are bringing new technology to northern Zambia. Half a dozen men are out in the midday sun, hauling metal rods up to the top of a tower. It's a cell phone tower and it's being built for the brand new copper smelter that's being built across the road. The smelter is Chinese owned â€“ another example, says electrician Joseph Mousounda, of China's growing presence here.
Mousounda: "Yeah it's good yes, there's a lot of investment that has been brought in at Chambishi â€“ especially by the Chinese companies.."
New copper smelter in Chambisi
Lynch: Mousounda is working on building the tower for now. But he's hoping to get a prized permanent job at the smelter when it's running at full capacity.
Mousounda: "We expect 3,000 employees to be employed, but at the moment the Chinese have brought in their men. There are nearly a thousand."
Lynch: China is in Zambia and in Africa â€“ in a big way. It's difficult to get firm numbers. But there are suggestions there are more than eight hundred thousand Chinese entrepreneurs and workers who have flooded onto the continent in the last decade. Even with the downturn, China's economy is still growing. In Africa, it sees the raw materials it needs to feed its hungry economic engine. Zambia â€“ rich in copper and other minerals is ready to sell. Bob Sichinga is a economic policy consultant, a former politician and a graduate of Harvard Business School.
Sichinga: "I think the western world and also Africa and the developing countries should simply brace themselves because china is very aggressive in this particular area. And they're now drawing on the goodwill that they created before and saying look we've been with you throughout â€“ we have offered you support in the past. "
Lynch: That past began decades ago when China offered ideological solidarity as the continent was struggling to liberate itself from its colonial masters such as Britain and France. In Zambia, help came in the form of iron and steel. In 1970, China built a railway to allow the landlocked nation to ship copper to port in Tanzania to avoid shipping through white-ruled Rhodesia and South Africa. Sichinga says that project is a touchstone for relations with China today.
Sichinga: "It created a bond, it created a relationship. And I'm mentioning that background so we can see where we are coming from and why china has played the role and why it is more acceptable than any other country in that context. "
Lynch: In the upscale business hotels in the capital of Lusaka, the English language service of Chinese state television is featured alongside CNN and the BBC.
While it's another sign of the growing influence of the Chinese here, they are still something of a mysterious presence. They keep to themselves and by and large, they keep out of sight.
Chinese-owned farm on the outskirts of Lusaka
Lynch: On the outskirts of Lusaka, two young Zambians are scurrying after hens that scatter underfoot, plucking out those that look plump enough to sell.
After trying and failing to find a Chinese entrepreneur or diplomat willing to speak to me, I've come to the farm of a man who will only identify himself as Mr. Chang.
Lynch: "Have you found that the longer you've lived here the more you get Chinese customers who have moved here?"
Chang: "Yes, many Chinese customers..."
Lynch: Mr. Chang has lived here for 13 years, selling chicken and vegetables. His English isn't very good but he's learned the local language so he can communicate with his workers. He has every interest in maintaining good relations.
Chang: "Very good friends...because the China people stay in Zambia a long time."
Mr.Chang has been in Zambia for 13 years
Lynch: The other main reason for China's successful incursion into Africa is based on something known here as conditionality. China has invested in many African nations despite instability, despite war and despite the practices of whoever is in charge. Western investment and aid â€“ so often tied to demands for reform â€“ can't compete. Lee Habasonda is a democracy activist in Zambia.
Habasonda: "China gives aid to Zambia regardless of the state of political or human rights situation. So, whereas other western donors provided conditionality to support Zambia particularly good governance conditionality, China was not giving Zambia aid on any form of conditionality."
Lynch: And so China leads the way. With Zambia, it has created tax free special enterprise zones in the copper belt and near Lusaka. China also finances the building of roads and other infrastructure, choosing Chinese companies to do the work. Western critics might call it neo-colonialism. But Hanson Sindowe of Zambia's Chamber of Commerce thinks that's short-sighted and might mean nations like the United States could lose out.
Sindowe: "I think my :message to them would be make up your minds if you want to invest in Africa, please go ahead and do so - if you're not interested in investing in Africa, fine. I think you will find Africa will go the Chinese way, quite comfortably."
Lynch: That isn't to say it's all THAT comfortable. As trade has grown, China has flooded African countries with cheap clothes, electronics and just about everything else. Even China booster Sindowe sees a problem.
Sindowe: "They tend to have one standard for the African people and another standard for the western world and i think a lot of people have started resenting that. I will be the first to tell you if you bought for instance a an electrical plug a Chinese made electrical plug meant for Africa it wont' last you a week."
Lynch: In the sprawling Kamwala market in downtown Lusaka, two young women paw through piles of Chinese made sandals. The store â€“ owned by Chinese merchants â€“ is always packed. Most Zambians don't have money so it's a popular place to shop.
Merchant: "It's good and cheap."
Lynch: "How much are those?"
Merchant: "They're 30 - they're 35."
Lynch: "How long do they last?"
Lynch: The sandals cost less than one U.S. dollar â€“ but quietly the women tell me, they'll only last about two weeks. The sheer volume of merchandise is starting to threaten competitors â€“ and the shoddy quality is starting to breed resentment.
Activist Lee Habasonda says that's one thing â€“ the greater danger is the growing resentment of Zambians who work for the Chinese.
Habasonda: "Unfortunately in a country like ours even if your job is a slave job, you'd rather have one than nothing. therefore, yes, we want the Chinese jobs not because they are the best jobs but because we have no choice."
Lynch: The World, I'm Laura Lynch.