“It definitely marks a departure from other presidents in Africa who have really courted Chinese investment without specifying this kind of issue,” says Dianna Games, CEO of Africa @Work, a Johannesburg-based business consultancy.
Lungu reportedly told Chinese developers in Sanya, China, that he wants China to use the Zambian labour force and Zambian contractors.
Games says his novel push for closer China-Zambia ties lies in precarious political position.
“You must remember that President Lungu is standing for another election in 2016," she told RFI. He has a very short time to make his mark among Zambian voters.”
But she said his call to use Zambian workers was positive, “given there’s a lot of anti-China sentiment in Zambia, because Zambian people feel that China is not developing their country, among other issues as well".
In 2010 Zambian workers in Chinese-run copper mines protested over poor working conditions and were fired upon by Chinese managers.
Two years later miners rioted, killing a Chinese manager.
Trade union leaders hailed Lungu’s efforts as a way to bring more jobs to Zambia, but were cautious.
“When the Chinese come to this country, they will have to abide by the Zambian laws,” says Bryson Nyrienda, General Secretary for Zambia’s National Union of Building, Engineering and General Workers.
“Previously, when the stadium was built, it was difficult because everything was signed in China and it was difficult to get worker representation. We learned our lesson from that,” he adds.
Zambia suffers from high formal unemployment but a boost from Chinese infrastructure companies could help a sagging economy.
More than 60 per cent of Zambians are youth, says Oliver Saasa, the head of Premier Consult Limited, a Lusaka-based economic consulting firm.
“While many, nearly 85 per cent, work in the informal sector, formal employment, those who pay taxes, is only at 15 per cent.”
Saasa says Lungu “believes, and I think many Zambians believe, that the more you actually bring in Zambians to learn skills, to be able to stand on their own, and competitively so, the better” it is for the country and the economy.
He says it would be better for Chinese companies in Zambia “to partner with Zambians so that we get to the levels of competence and professionalism that we tend to associate with in the construction sector with Chinese firms […] a win-win situation.”
Lungu’s visit to China is timely, coming just after the announcement that he will roll back the mining tax system that late President Michael Sata had put into place to tax mining concerns at a higher rate, up to 20 per cent for some mines.
Games says that Lungu is trying to find his way as the new president, balancing between development and growth.
“He came in when the copper price was very weak and that didn’t help,” she says.
For now, Lungu’s call for greater China-Zambia cooperation is considered positive, as long as labour laws are respected.
“For the way forward, the rights of the Zambian citizen will have to be followed. That’s why the labour movement is supposed to be included,” says Nyirenda.