Cooperation or Exploitation? The Socioeconomic Challenges of Chinese-owned Copper Mines in Zambia

Image Courtesy of ShutterStock.

Megan Sieroka, Queens University.


China’s involvement in Africa began to make headlines in 2006 when 35 African states gathered in Beijing to celebrate Sino-African relations in the new millennium. Only a few months earlier, riots broke out in Zambia in an anti-Chinese patriotic front. Following the riot, 5 miners were shot and wounded by a Chinese manager. Anti-Chinese sentiments have been growing throughout Africa since the country began engaging in a new form of colonialism — the so-called “Chinese Scramble”. China’s role in Zambia’s copper mining industry is not a source of sustainable development and instead is used by China’s state to advance their international interests. This article is separated into two parts: firstly, it will evaluate the state and inter-state level which drives development objectives, and secondly, it will analyze social inequity and workers’ rights in Chinese-run copper mines. The final section of this paper will evaluate leading scholars and advocates of China’s investment in Zambia.

Following independence from the British in 1964, Zambia’s Copperbelt region was transformed into a dynamic industrial and urban region. Early neoliberal efforts made Zambia a model for other Southern African countries. Zambia’s political system is a multi-party democracy, with formal regulatory and monitoring institutions. In 1965, Zambia was the first Southern African country to establish diplomatic relations with China. Gadzala argues that China’s engagement in Zambia is not particular to the Zambian context, but rather a representation of Chinese business engagement overseas. In 1991, the government of Zambia implemented investor-friendly policy regimes in response to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Ambitious privatization programmes and the expansion of copper and cobalt extraction throughout the 1990s spurred FDI inflows. The introduction of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) and privatization have deviated international development regimes away from sustainable development. The country’s public debt burden is now 63.1 percent of its annual GDP. China claims that its relationship with Zambia is a “win-win” situation, although proof of an equal bilateral partnership rarely seems to exist. 

A primary objection to China’s involvement in Africa is raised by Bonnie Girard, the President of China Channel Ltd., who critiques China’s investment as “economic slavery.” Zambia is being crippled by an increasingly expansive inescapable debt. Zambia has pursued 19 infrastructure projects in the preceding 5 years, all attached by their own burden of debt — totalling the amount of $9 billion. Nkonde argues that China operates in informal and deceptive forms of neocolonialism.  

China’s hegemony is tied to its stronghold on the Zambian economy. Following the 2008 global financial crisis, copper prices slumped, and were mainly attributed to “sinking demand from China, which purchases about 40 percent of copper produced globally.” Mining is the backbone of Zambia’s economy, and the country’s history can be explained through global fluctuations in the price of copper.  Zambia has become increasingly reliant on Chinese investment, as China continues to grow its share of domestic companies, notably in the mining industry.   

One of the prominent developmental Chinese contributions in Zambia is energy infrastructure. Girard states, “like European colonialists before them, the Chinese are building infrastructure to support their primary aim of extracting and exporting Zambia’s rich mineral resources.” Blackouts and other energy supply issues have not been well-documented in official development discourse.  The inherent unevenness of energy distribution is what David McDonald calls “electric capitalism.” McDonald states that, “electricity has become an integral part of all capitalist activity and that we can best understand the inequalities of its availability and affordability by looking at the (neo-liberal) market dynamics within which it operates.” 

Zambia’s electrical infrastructure is highly political.  Following copper price-hikes in the early 2000s, Zambia’s Northwest province opened up many new mines. Unequal electrical infrastructure in homes contributes to the creation of social classesKesselring states that privately-owned copper mines consume more than 50 percent of electrical energy in Zambia, and only 22 percent of households are connected to the national grid. Energy supply issues demonstrate the preference for private capital over social capital. Chinese-mining companies and upper-class Zambians prioritize the economy above the development needs of the community.

            Lastly, Haglung points to a pervasive lack of capacity and transparency that undermines the effectiveness of Zambia’s formal regulatory and monitoring institutions. China’s oversight body in Zambian mines is called the Economic and Commercial Council (ECC). In Zambia, there are only six staff members from the ECC overseeing mining activities. In an interview with a Chinese company official, Dan Haglung found that the company believes that the responsibility should lie in the Zambian government, not the ECC. Secondly, the Mines Safety Department (MSD) is mandated to monitor health and safety performance in mining companies in Zambia. The MSD is severely disenfranchised by an industry-wide shortage of skilled workers and a lack-of-funding to provide adequate salaries. While the MSD lacks the resources to oversee daily mining operations, the ECC disputes its responsibility.

The MSD came under severe scrutiny in 2005 when an explosion in a Zambian mine killed fifty-two Zambian workers at the Beijing General Research Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (BGRIMM). The state’s investigation deemed the incident a result of negligent safety measures.  Moreover, there was no cost punishment allocated to any party nor disciplinary measures of any kind. Zambian mineworkers are faced with tremendously inadequate and unsafe labour conditions. Neither their employers nor their government acts to secure their safety and rights. 

In addition to the low safety regulations provided by Chinese oversight bodies, Zambian miners lack the agency to improve their working conditions. Reports show that Chinese-owned mines are the “biggest violators of workers’ rights”. A report from Human Rights Watch (HRW), states that “Chinese copper operations were the country’s worst when it comes to health and safety.” Chinese firms in Zambia have been continuously critiqued for running very low-wage, unsafe factories and mining operations in Zambia. Safety issues are a constant threat to Zambian nationals in mines.  

The Collum Coal Mine (CCM)—one of Zambia’s largest copper mines—was privatized following the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s. Hairong & Sautman describe this process as “privatized through a corrupt process 280 parastatals that accounted for 85 percent of Zambia’s former colonial master.” In 2005, CCM was shut down for not requiring protective safety wear for workers but was later reopened in 2006. In 2012, a rock fell at a copper mine resulting in numerous injuries.  The cause was found to be associated with poorly trained and equipped personnel. In 2006, workers in CCM received $35 per month, well-below western standards of the minimum wage. Workers continue to bear these conditions fearful of losing their jobs. Large multinational corporations continue to profit off of widespread worker exploitation.

Hairong & Sautman, argue that the violence in Chinese-operated coal mines can be traced back to the privatization in the late 1990s. The first—and largest—mining devastation occurred in 2005 when 46 Zambian workers were killed by an explosion at a China Nonferrous Metal Mining (Group) Co. Ltd. (CNMC) factory. Moreover, in 2006 workers broke out into riots because their working conditions were not being improved. Following the riot, 5 miners were shot and wounded by a Chinese manager. In response to the walkout in 2006, CCM vowed to increase wages from K150,000 to K600,000 but failed to follow through with their promise.

Additionally, in 2010 11 workers were shot at the CCM protesting for improved working conditions. Following the 2011 protest events, a Zambian journalist reported in an HRW interview that “It just confirmed how powerful the Chinese are in Zambia. The Chinese, you hear them say, we can do anything; this has been proven after the shooting in Sinazongwe. The state dropped the charges, it just negotiated a compensation package.” Neither protest nor walkout leveraged Zambian workers over their Chinese superiors. 

Lastly, after extensive research and interviews, HRW sent a letter to CNMC-owned copper operations requesting if meetings could be arranged with management representatives. After multiple attempts, HRW was continuously denied access to workers’ sites and was refused interviews. This is one of many examples that demonstrate China’s unwillingness to change the working standards in their mines.

            The Zambian labour market—both in the formal and informal sectors—is increasingly under threat as a result of China’s involvement in Africa. In the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine, Zambians continuously report being laid off to be replaced by Chinese workers. Zambia has and continues to see a rapid influx of Chinese labourers in all industries of work. Not only in the mining sector but also in Zambia’s informal-job market. While official numbers are still contested, according to records from the United Nations, for every Zambian working at a Chinese mining firm, there are 15 Chinese workers.  

Secondly, Zambians are still faced with job competition when they are displaced into the informal economy. Zambia’s informal sector is an urban phenomenon and is continuing to grow.  Broadly defined, the informal sector is comprised of jobs and industries that do not completely comply with Zambia’s formal laws and regulations. In 1997, 15 percent of the population worked in the informal sector, whereas now 80 percent to 90 percent of labourers work in the informal sector. Gadzala states that “recent migration of small-scale Chinese entrepreneurs into the country’s informal economy further exacerbates this reality, leaving an increasing number of Zambians without work.” Development efforts are unjustifiable in China’s case — rather than creating opportunities for Zambians, they are taking away opportunities in order to benefit Chinese citizens.

Despite numerous criticisms of China’s involvement in Zambia, it is essential to recognize the Eurocentric bias in media coverage. Western powers continue to report on China’s involvement in Zambia through a narrow and heavily biased lens. Hairong and Sautman argue that the West has created a discursive trope around Chinese-African relations. The discursive trope is continued by the western elite as well as western media. They state that this trope has been used since the mid-2000s, to further Western state-power over China’s growing global hegemony. 

For example, the United States has been deceptive and hypocritical in its critiques of China’s foreign affairs. In a statement from the US State Department in 2009, Hillary Clinton stated that China has embarked on a new form of colonialism in Africa, grabbing as many natural resources as it can while disregarding the effect on the people of that continent. At the time of this statement, mining accounted for 60 percent of United States FDI, and only 29 percent of Chinese FDI. While it is not contested that the working conditions in Chinese mines are abhorrent, Western elites continue to display an erroneous innocent facade.

Moreover, the West often uses the example of the CMM to advance the ‘West is best’ narrative. For example, following the 2012 CCM riot and political fallout, one Chinese worker was murdered and several others were seriously injured. Reports of the riot and the deaths as a result of the riot were not equally presented in the news. Moreover, United States government articles and broadcasts ignore two critical details: firstly, the CCM founder is Australian and secondly, the shooters had reason to fear for their lives. Western and Zambian media often neglect to demonstrate an unbiased stance on specific coal mine events. Zambian mining workers’ safety conditions have not met acceptable standards, however, the narrative is exaggerated and used for strategic competition between the West and China.  

While media bias does exist, the working conditions in CCM have yet to improve. Following the 2012 shooting, workers were compensated but working conditions were not improved. Bias in the media is no excuse for the tremendous violations of human rights presented in CCM operations.

Secondly, China is rebranding its FDI to dissociate from neocolonialism. Xi Jinping stated at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) Summit in 2018 that China has “no political strings attached” to their investments across Africa. China’s African policy refers to the relationship as a “friendship” guided by political equality, mutual trust, and economic win-win cooperation and cultural exchange. Because of growing international critique over their involvement in southern Africa, China has shown evidence to be moving away from interest-bearing credit lines and toward grants or interest-free loans. China vying away from heavy debt measures could indicate a step in the right direction.

Based on the evidence of China’s pursuance of state objectives from the private investors as well as the injustices faced by individual miners, it is evident that China is furthering its state power rather than contributing to the development of Zambia. Many researchers agree that China’s role in Zambia is characterized by economic slavery, which began through the neoliberal policy changes dating back to 1991. Moreover, the electricity supply has not been properly documented in official discourse but presents a significant challenge for Zambians living in mining towns. Zambians work in horrendous conditions, are not protected by the state nor the mining firms, and the country is extremely dependant on Chinese FDI. Zambia’s current development path is currently unsustainable. The country must diversify investments with other countries, and develop new industries, in order to improve the well-being of both citizens and the state. Zambia must reduce the hegemonic power of Chinese firms in order to catalyze sustainable development.



Brautigam, Deborah. 2018. “Opinion: U.S. Politicians Get China in Africa All Wrong.” The Washington Post.

Central Intelligence Agency. “The World Factbook: Zambia.” 2021.

Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). 2018. “Full Text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Speech at Opening Ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit.” Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, 2018.

Gadzala, Aleksandra W. “From Formal- to Informal-Sector Employment: Examining the Chinese Presence in Zambia.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 37, no. 123, 2010, pp. 41-59.

Girard, Bonnie. “Zambia debates Chinese ‘economic slavery.’” The Diplomat. 2019.

Haglung, Dan. “Regulating FDI in Weak African States: A Case Study of Chinese Copper Mining in Zambia.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 46, no. 4, 2008, pp. 547-575.

Hairong, Yan and Sautman, Barry. “Back ‘the Chinese’: Contextualizing Zambia’s Collum Coal Mine Shooting.” Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 23, no. 90, 2014, pp. 1071-1092.

Hairong, Yan, and Sautman, Barry. ““The Beginning of a World Empire”? Contesting the Discourse of Chinese Copper Mining in Zambia.” Modern China, vol. 39, no. 2, 2013, pp. 131-164.

Human Rights Watch (HRW). ““You’ll be fired if you refuse.” Labor Abuses in Zambia’s Chinese State-Owned Copper Mines.” 2011.

International Monetary Fund (IMF). (2007). What drives China’s growing role in Africa?

Kesselring, Rita. “The Electricity Crisis in Zambia; Blackouts and Social Stratification in New Mining Towns.” Energy Research & Social Science, vol. 30(Complete), 2017, pp. 94-102.

Kumi, Emmanuel, Arhin, Albert, and Yeboah, Thomas. 2014. “Can Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals Survive Neoliberalism? A Critical Examination of the Sustainable Development—Neoliberalism Nexus in Developing Countries. Environment Development and Sustainability, vol. 16, no. 3, 2014.  

Leslie, Agnes. “Zambia and China: Workers’ Protest, Civil Society and the Role of Oppression Politics in Elevating State Engagement.” African Studies Quarterly, vol.16, no. ¾, 2016, pp. 89-106.

McDonald, David. 2012. “Electric Capitalism: Recolonizing Africa on the Power Grid.” HSRC Press: Pretoria. 2012.

Nkonde, Kalima. “How China Slowly Colonizing Zambian Economy.” Lusaka Times, 2018.

Radulovic, Vladan. “Johannesburg, Gauteng / South Africa – May 02 2019 : Man Shouting and Singing Liberation Songs in a Crowd at a Protest Rally Midday Johannesburg Cbd.” Johannesburg Gauteng South Africa, ShutterStock, 2 May 2019,

Shah, Manji Kedia. 2912. “Developing Zambia’s Informal Sector and Enhancing its Contribution to the Fiscus.” International Growth Centre.,of%20government%20laws%20and%20regulations.&text=In%20terms%20of%20employment%2C%20the,than%20a%20million%20informal%20businesses).

The State Council of The Peoples Republic of China. China’s African Policy, 2006.

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). 2006. Investment Policy Review: Zambia.”