News coverage of mining disasters in Chile, China and Ecuador in recent weeks has rudely awakened the world to the safety hazards mine workers brave every day. A lesser-known threat to some miners, however, comes in the form of a bullet. In Zambia earlier this month, one mine in the Sinazongwe district evoked the ghosts of Pullman circa 1894 when management allegedly opened fire on protesting workers.
The clash reportedly resulted in 11 injured young miners, 3 injured Chinese, and attempted murder charges for two Chinese staff. The backdrop to the bloody scene was the brewing tension between Chinese businesses and African communities, locked in a messy welter of trade ties and geopolitical scheming. While Africa’s “resource curse” has deep historical roots, China’s strategic appetite for the continent’s subterranean riches is unprecedented.
The workers at the Collum Coal Mine were in trouble long before the first shot was fired. The mine was temporarily shut down last year due to awful conditions. This month, following the arrest of the accused supervisors, provincial minister Elijah Muchima gave the company until October 30 to improve conditions at the mine “or face government action,” reports the Lusaka Times:
He observed that miners have been subjected to slavery conditions and all of them are employed on part time, despite a number of them clocking nine years of service.
Mr Muchima has also directed that no employee should be fired for having participated in the protest over the weekend.
The racial and political overtones surrounding the incident reflects public anxiety over what many see as a neocolonial order imposed by rising star of the “developing world.”
China’s efforts to brand itself as a benevolent superpower — mainly by buttering its investments in poor nations with sorely needed infrastructure projects—have paid off handsomely across the Global South. To the chagrin of human rights activists, China’s trading partners include some pariah states like Zimbabwe and Sudan. So far, perhaps wary of its own dubious track record, China has stuck to a policy of “noninterference.”
As Stefan Halper explains in Foreign Policy, the more African nations China can woo with road-building and hospital projects, the more support it can rally to push favorable policies at the World Trade Organization and the United Nations while countervailing the U.S. and European Union.
To critics, the Sinazongwe clash will catalyze growing resentment of China’s perceived impunity and hostility to workers’ rights in Africa. Earlier this year, Post Zambia quoted economist Bob Sichinga on China’s investment rush and the lingering legacy of imperialism:
“In the past, Western countries raped Zambia and Africa for her resources and now its China’s turn. And while all that is happening, we are sitting wide open. How can you have a regime that is open-ended?”
A coalition of Zambian civil society groups has revealed a troubling intersection between the global trade hegemony and weak governance. The groups’ 2007 report on the privatization of the mining industry described a phalanx of predatory foreign investment.
…well-founded popular complaints about the mining industry are based on bread and butter issues: poverty wages, insecure terms and conditions, resistance to the legal right of trade unions to organise, inadequate support for retrenched and retired workers and a failure of attention to safety measures and environmental protection by the mining companies.
Their investigation of the industry harshly indicted the Chinese-run Chambishi mine for exploiting Zambian workers by paying poverty wages and employing many without a permanent contract. The results of such a “partnership” could be explosive:
…in April 2005 in the single biggest disaster in the history of Zambian mining, there was an explosion at the BGRIMM plant that killed 52 Zambian workers. None of the management or Chinese staff at the plant was injured. Secondly, in 2006, during a two-day wildcat strike over delays in payments to workers at [Non-Ferrous Metals Corporation Africa (NFCA)], workers from the mine protested near to the living quarters of Chinese managers. Two of the protestors were shot.
Whether the shooting was carried out by NFCA managers, security guards or indeed Zambian police has never been cleared up, and no prosecutions have followed. The incident confirmed in the popular imagination the idea that Chinese bosses were uniquely brutal and exploitative, and that the Zambian state’s relationship to them was too close.
Of course, rich Western countries can’t easily wag a finger at China’s labor practices, since Beijing is simply following a neocolonial path already well-trammeled by multinational moguls like Shell and Hershey’s.
Yet the pace, scope and stealth of China’s economic penetration of the Global South is sweeping. A 2007 study published by Mines and Communities mapped out Chinese mining enterprises spanning from Burma to the D. R. Congo, culling Bauxite, Zinc, Copper and other precious resources. The report warns:
One fear held by human rights advocates and trade unionists outside China is that the regime’s denial of free trade unionism and persecution of ‘dissident’ workers’ leaders and lawyers who defend them, will be adopted by Chinese companies overseas.
Indeed, the latest ITUC report on labor rights worldwide notes, “The Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has expressed concern at the government’s failure to apply labour legislation, particularly when it comes to Chinese investors.”
The Collum mine controversy might or might not lead to direct political confrontation. Lusaka may simply wish to talk tough in public but avoid actually challenging its Chinese benefactors. The Chinese Embassy in Zambia meanwhile has pledged to cooperate with the investigation and deal with “offenders and the inciters of the riot,” while remaining predictably silent on systemic causes of workers’ unrest. Perhaps in the end, it’s only the embattled mine workers who will dare tell the real story of China’s underground empire.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.