Category Archives: racism

Michael Sata Declared Zambia’s Fifth President

Note: Picture of Michael Sata was taken from Lusaka Times, which counts as public domain.

After much anticipation, Michael Sata was declared Zambia’s fifth president today. There were reports of violence in Solwezi (northwest), the Copperbelt (northern) and even Lusaka in the past few days since Zambians went to the polls on the 20th of September. Riots erupted over the delay of election results leading to suspicion of rigging. Yesterday, there were two power shortages where I live near the university. Even before the power shortages, the main television stations updating us with election results had stopped reporting due to an “exparte injunction imposed on three privately-owned media houses” to withhold publishing anything concerning the elections until results had been verified and finalized. By evening when electricity came back on, it was clear that Sata (and his party, PF) was in the lead. Though there were still 34 constituencies remaining to be counted, he had already obtained 40 percent of the votes while the incumbent Rupiah Banda trailed behind. They had not counted many of the constituencies in Lusaka yet. It was common knowledge that Sata had overwhelmingly swept the urban areas by huge margins. When official results were announced late into the night, immediately, we heard shouting, cheering, people running into the streets to celebrate and dance. Sata had won.

According to Lusaka Times, “Justice Irene Mambilima announced early this morning that with totals completed from nearly all the country‚Äôs 143 constituencies, Sata had won with 1,150,045 votes, representation 43 percent of the total. President Rupiah Banda had 961,796 votes, representing 36.1 percent. Eight other candidates shared the remainder.”

Now, what of President Michael Sata, otherwise known as “King Cobra”? He was a minister in the governments of both Kaunda and Chiluba. He used to be in the United National Independence Party (UNIP) under Kaunda and then changed to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) under Chiluba so some see his move to the opposition Patriotic Front (PF) as simply opportunistic and disingenuous. Yet many Zambians consider him as someone to gets things done. He’s known to look out for Zambians. They remember the time when he was a minister of health and they never ran out of medicines at the clinics or hospitals. Detractors, however, worry that his reputed lack of tact and “political thuggery” will cause embarrassment at home and abroad and in dealing with foreign investors.

There is no doubt Sata is a polarizing figure, especially when it comes to the thorny issue of foreign direct investment. Sata has been known to run on an anti-Chinese platform, allegedly heavily supported by Taiwanese donors. Although this claim has been circulating, it has never been substantiated. When I asked an official whether it was true that the Taiwanese were donating campaign money to PF, he replied with a resounding no. It was to the benefit of Sata to tone down his anti-Chinese remarks, which he followed through this time in his campaign. Many of his supporters perceive him to be their defender, one who looks out for Zambians at a time when it seems investors reap all the benefits at the expense of locals. One thing is for sure: Sata has promised to change the way negotiations are done with the Chinese and work to ensure better work conditions, pay and benefits for Zambians.

However, targeting one group of nationals with xenophobic remarks may backfire. Many Chinese may pull out. Already, I have witnessed and experienced elements of xenophobia among Zambians — a strand of “Orientalism” that once plagued (and still exists in parts of ) the United States. Sometimes, I hear Zambians yell out “ching chong” or ask “why are your eyes like that?” Though there are Japanese aid workers and students and South Korean students learning the local languages — I’ve been told Japan and Korean companies are looking to invest in Zambia as well — the common response among Zambians is that “they’re all Chinese.” I have found myself often having to explain the differences among the nationalities and describe the diversity among Chinese themselves in terms of provincial origin, ethnicity, class, profession, and other ascribed attributes. The British colonial legacy has also influenced many to disparage those with non-European features and what they perceive to be “poor English manners” and English language skills. It seems, in general, one’s fluency in English is a marker of status. Thus, it becomes one of the most significant factors in their perceptions of the Chinese in Zambia. Perhaps, a type of racial hierarchy, maybe not the kind operating in the US but similar, is in effect as well, no thanks to Hollywood.

Of course, the discontent with the way many Chinese investors have handled labor matters is legitimate due to poor compensation and treatment of local workers. It is also undeniable that the majority of Chinese individuals and families in Zambia remain physically isolated and less socially and culturally integrated. However, it is curious and telling that the magnitude of emphasis placed on the Chinese (as an abstract, homogeneous entity rather than a group of individuals with diverse interests and origins) in comparison to the emphasis on the actions and often times, complicity of local officials and elites working in partnership with the Chinese is so much more severe. Why? The glare seems to me quite misplaced. It’s also alarmingly reminiscent of the historical racism against the “inscrutable Orientals” in the United States enshrined in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Why Hilary Clinton and Michael Sata, among others, have chosen to emphasize the role of the Chinese in Zambia and on the continent of Africa also raises a few eyebrows. There is a joke among my Zambian friends that Lusaka has turned into a “province” of South Africa. It’s taken over by South African shops, malls, and companies. In the same vein, India has pledged $2.2 billion dollars of FDI in the next several years. Though China is currently one of the top investors in Zambia, labor issues have emerged in South African and Indian companies as well. It seems these problems are symptomatic of the way laws and policies (including tax benefits) have been implemented to give greater advantage to foreign investors and little or none to locals. One piece of evidence is the exorbitant rates at which local micro-finance firms and banks charge Zambians if they want to borrow money to start their own business — often times at 50 percent interest. Thus, if Sata delivers on his promise, he will work to ensure that Zambians themselves give each other the opportunity to become business-owners and stakeholders.

Only then will the rewards of increasing foreign direct investment ultimately and justifiably flow to Zambians themselves.

Being Chinese in South Africa by Yoon Jung Park (2008)

Yoon Jung Park’s illuminating work on the Chinese in South Africa examines their identity formation as ongoing processes of construction in light of state laws towards immigrants, their “in-between” status during the apartheid, and their encounters with other Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants. The group Park focuses on number around 10,000 to 12,000 who are descendants of immigrants who arrived after 1870. Many came from Guangdong province of south China and were motivated by economic hardships brought about by the loss of jobs due to the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864 which caused the loss of twenty million people. Just as the Gold Rush had enticed many to head to California, some of them were lured to South Africa for gold. The Cantonese tended to live in Transvaal and the Haaka in coastal towns.

If we compare her work to studies on immigrants elsewhere, for example, Paul Stoller’s Money Has No Smell: The Africanization of New York City, common patterns emerge. First, there was the pattern of chain migration based on kinship networks from common places of origin. Usually, boys and men came first, then the women came later. Second, the level of acculturation and assimilation to the host society depends on myriad factors, perhaps most importantly, the acceptance of the host society. The attitude of the government of the departing society is important as well. For many centuries, as Park, Pheng Cheah and Wang Gungwu have pointed out, the Chinese state called Chinese migrants traitors, vagabonds, fugitives, outlaws, and later sojourners, guests, and visitors. From 1370 to 1893 due to inward-isolationist laws, the Chinese were not allowed to leave the country. This changed under the Manchu Qing dynasty. Sojourners played an important role in later national affairs when they became involved in financing projects back home; some have argued that because they were considered economic assets, the Chinese government tried to cultivate their loyalty to the homeland. Giovanni Arrighi in Adam Smith in Beijing makes a very interesting case that the overseas Chinese who were engaged in capitalist activities, but unlike in England, did not have the same sort of influence over the state, which prevented China from industrializing in the early 19th century.

Huaqiao, meaning overseas Chinese, was used to describe Chinese sojourners to mean that they would “be good filial sons who loved their homes, always planned to return, and never stop being Chinese” (62). China’s call for overseas Chinese to be patriotic was met with mixed responses, especially when the view of the host society of China changed when it became Community. Suddenly, every Chinese was suspected of being a Community. Then there was the issue of whether the Chinese Nationalists or the Communists would be considered the legitimate government of China after 1949. As in many overseas Chinese communities, it seems the KMT held dominance. South Africa recognized Chinese Nationalists as the legitimate government.

Like many other immigrant groups, adaptation to the host society differs across generations. The first generation, in general, was inclined to try to hold on to an essentialized and romanticized version of the “Chineseness.” The second generation began to question how “Chinese” they were and had different ideas about their sense of belonging. Yet part of the reason why the homeland continued to persist in their imaginations and provide a sense of rootedness was due to the rejection of the host society. In fact, what I enjoyed most about this book was Park’s comparison of the South African Chinese to the Chinese in America. She quotes, “sentimental identification with parents’ or grandparents’ homeland arises out of a continuing reluctance of larger society here to see the Asian Pacific Americans as they are — citizens of color — and as they would be : full-fledged participants in a pluralistic American enterprise. ‘Homeland’ here becomes a refuge, a state of parity, a myth of their own hearts” (74).

In South Africa, shopkeepers born in the 1920s and 1930s were treated as second-class citizens, though better than non-whites. Many experienced discrimination and oppression during the apartheid. They were not allowed to go to public facilities, white hospitals, schools and technical colleges. Although they were later allowed to live in white areas and go to white schools, they remained second-class citizens. The Population Registration Act of 1950 divided everyone into white or “European” or “non-European.” The latter was later divided into “native” (then “Bantu,” “African,” then “black), “Indian,” and “colored” (and the Chinese also fell into this category). Later, “Chinese” was defined as “any person who in fact is or is generally accepted to be a member of a race or tribe whose national home is in China”. In 1959, the Extension of University Education Act passed, allowing the Chinese and other non-whites to apply for permits to attend university. This also meant more integration with whites and eventual upward mobility. Some who attained economic success and became affluent adopted certain racist attitudes. As Park observes, “These young people appear to exhibit what one scholar refers to as ‘non-reflective’ racism, learned from their increasingly white social environment. This racism was further informed by a sense of uniqueness and superiority in their Chinese-ness, learned from parents and grandparents” (98). This also coincided with numerous attempts by Chinese South Africans to “woo white community leaders and decision-makers” to gain access to certain privileges.

When compared to the Mississippi Chinese, Park argues, the Chinese were similar in achieving economic success and in just two generations, shifting from shopkeepers to “highly educated set of professionals with high levels of acceptance by white South Africans” (105). The difference was the degree to which they maintained their unique status and also made efforts to preserve Chinese culture and heritage. In the 197os and 1980s, they were given offers to be “white” and therefore have full rights, but they rejected this offer on the grounds that they wanted full rights but also wanted to keep a separate ethnic identity. In 1994, the Chinese community like many others, felt let down when their hopes of a democratic state providing quality healthcare, decent education and other social services were lost in the face of what they perceived to be corruption in the government and rise in crime. Many remained quiet and politically inactive, because “their acceptance of concessions from the white government also turned them, unofficially, into honorary whites — an awkward position under any circumstances,” so they “feared that others judged them as having been co-opted by, or worse, having collaborated with the apartheid government”.

Race is, as Park argues, the most important variable in determining the distribution and redistribution of resources in South Africa. Labels have implications for the Chinese. They might fit into “Coloured” as they had been labeled in some cases during apartheid. Because they’re not mentioned in affirmative action laws, particularly the Employment Equity Act (EEA) of 1998 and Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) Act of 2003, they are excluded from remedial actions. Park concludes that although the Chinese community is quite divided on their position in affirmative action policies, she believes that they should qualify as disadvantaged. They were not permitted to vote until 1994. She argues, “if they do not qualify as ‘black’ and previously disadvantaged, then what of the experiences of the Chinese to came of age in the 1950s, 60s and 70s? To my mind their current exclusion from the employment equity legislation clearly denies them their history of discrimination, humiliation and suffering. These new Acts continue to rob them of equality in post-apartheid South Africa”.

Park’s study is very comprehensive, but left me with many questions,which I believe is a hallmark of an overall excellent ethnographic study. She briefly talks about what happens when South African Chinese, the ones who had been there for two or more generations interact with newer immigrants of Taiwanese, ethnic Chinese from other parts of the world, and mainland Chinese. She explains that because these multiple groups have their own view of what is authentically Chinese, “Chinese-ness” has come under heated debate. I have witnessed this in southern California where I grew up — tensions among different groups of immigrants, all calling themselves “Chinese” or in some cases, “Taiwanese.” Some of the Taiwanese were not welcoming of the mainland Chinese immigrants that arrived in the 1990s. Aihwa Ong among others has published on this in detail referring to the examples of “parachute children,” children whose affluent parents and families in Hong Kong and Taiwan purchase homes for them in the US and they maintain ties to their homeland due to frequent travel afforded by mass amounts of wealth. I went to university with many “parachute children”. She calls this “flexible citizenship” which is the “cultural logics of capital accumulation, travel and displacement that induce subjects to respond fluidly and opportunistically to changing political economic conditions” (Ong). What is the nature of their interactions and how are these interactions impacted by different labor settings? Gillian Hart’s Disabling Globalization about the treatment of South African black workers in Taiwanese factories can be put in fruitful dialogue with this book.

New Movies "When China Met Africa" and "The Colony"

So I went to the film screening for “When China Met Africa” and “The Colony” sponsored by the Committee on Global Thought at Columbia University and was glad to witness such thought-provoking documentaries related to my research topic. The first film had more of an argument to make, not quite as cynical as Darwin’s Nightmare, but it had a slant which I quite well embrace. The second film was more of a narrated, journalistic account of Chinese lives in Senegal. I was partial to the first film, primarily because it tried to illuminate some of the controversial and taboo topics in China and Zambian relations through powerful yet subtle images and dialogue. Some of the topics that the film addressed — topics that I’m grappling with in my own research — are the following:

1) Potential Exploitation of Workers and Unequal Power Dynamics — Many of the scenes made me feel uncomfortable, as they showed the Chinese in the negative light, in particular, yelling at the workers, talking about “bashing in the head” of a local who might have stolen chickens from the owners, and giving them low wages in harsh working conditions. My research in Zambia also confirms this troubling aspect, although as the film only briefly alludes to, but I try to discuss a bit more thoroughly in my work, the language barrier poses a huge problem. Many of my Chinese friends spoke of their insecurities in speaking and understanding fluent English, and this created distance between them and locals. Their reliance on mannerisms and gruff tones tended to be easily misconstrued as blatant rudeness or even exploitative styles of management. I think that some of my Chinese respondents, in order to overcompensate for their insecurities, exhibited rougher styles of management because of their insecurities of trying to make it in a foreign country and also about their English abilities. Nonetheless, I do think there are issues of race and also global world order perceptions that the film elided. Some of the Chinese in the film made negative comments about dark-skinned, Black people. In preliminary fieldwork, nearly all of my respondents espoused some form of racial prejudice. I will tentatively put forth that this has to do with how Africa is positioned in the imagination of Westerners and the Chinese (many of whom are influenced by the West as well). That is, their perceptions of race also has to do their perceptions of China as a rising global power and Africa as far behind, economically and also in terms of development. Thus, most of my Chinese friends wanted to make enough money either to go back home or to go to countries they considered to be in the “first world.” Anywhere but Africa, they said. Still, race, in terms of preferences for lighter skin in the Chinese context and brought over as social practice in African countries, cannot be completely ignored either. These are issues that the film touches on and I hope to address in further research.

2) Food Chain — I became quite cynical and even depressed at some of the conditions I witnessed while in Zambia during the past three summers. The film did a great job in provoking the audience to be critical about the benefits that locals accrue from Chinese foreign investments. I found the juxtaposition of images of dignarities and elites on Chinese and Zambian sides meeting with elaborate fanfare against images of locals struggling to make ends meet and working in tough conditions to make a living especially effective. One got the sense that what is happening among state and international actors was not benefiting people on the ground, the Chinese and Zambians who were learning to work with each other and working in the hot sun to complete projects signed and sealed by the elites. I always think of the food chain analysis when I think about my research (I’m quite pessimistic, I know, and it’s been hard not to be). Some of the Chinese I met, as in the film, were in Zambia to take advantage of opportunities that they were excluded from in China. Too much pressure in China. Some felt left behind. What happens then? They go to Zambia, where so many are also left behind. At least where I stayed in Lusaka, unemployment reaches over 70 percent. Individual Chinese traders must struggle at first to make some profit, but they do come with the advantage of more capital garnered from back home. What does this do to local Zambians? Some are driven out of business. Others work for the Chinese for very low wages because they don’t have many other options. One man complained to me that the government was not preventing the Chinese from entering nshima-making niches at the market and was adamant that this should be a local-targeted niche. Even there, he said, the Chinese were taking over. The movie pointed out that there are these structures in place that put both groups at a disadvantage and it became a matter of one group crawling over the other to get ahead within structures that are inherently unequal. It reminds me of the food chain. It’s not right for the toad to eat the fly, but the toad eats the fly to survive — survive until, at least, when the animal above the toad eats the toad. What the movie didn’t address was the level of corruption among the elites and political/international actors. I wondered, for example, how much the Zambian minister was getting from the Chinese to give the companies bids on construction and other development projects. I am sure there was an exchange of money, but how much and when?

What the movie did make clear is that even as the individuals try to learn to understand each other and their own lives, there are challenges that extend beyond their day-to-day situations. These challenges are global and economic and attest to the notion that China and African relations is less a clear-cut domain, but seemingly more and more about structural inequalities in the global world order.