It has been a bruising week in the court of public opinion for Chinese companies working overseas. First anti-corruption campaigner Transparency International said that Chinese multinationals, along with their Indian counterparts, were most likely among companies from 28 countries involved in foreign direct investment to offer bribes to win business. Now the human-rights group, Human Rights Watch has accused China’s four copper miners operating in Zambia, all subsidiaries of the state-owned China Non-Ferrous Metals Mining Corp., of flouting local and international labor and safety standards. While acknowledging that there had been some improvement, Human Rights Watch’s most pointed comment was that China’s copper miners in Zambia treat their workers just as they do at home.
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Two Chinese managers of the Collum coal mine in southern Zambia, Xiao Li Shan, 48, and Wu Jiu Hua, 46, have been charged with attempted murder following a shooting incident at the mine that left at least 11 workers injured. The shootings happened during a protest by miners on Friday over pay and conditions. The two managers allegedly opened fire on the protesters though whether they were shooting at or over the heads of the crowd is unclear.
China has invested heavily in Zambia’s mining industry. As in other African countries, those investments have been accompanied by rising tensions between locals and Chinese expatriates who arrive along with the investment cash from China. Some 500 Zambian copper mine workers were sacked in 2008 after rioting and attacking a Chinese manager whose injuries required hospital treatment. However, the tensions are more politicized in Zambia than anywhere else in Africa; it was a campaign issue in the presidential election in 2006 following an earlier shooting that had left five Zambians wounded by managers during pay riots at the Chinese-owned Chambishi mine the previous year.
With a general election due next year, this latest incident is likely to remain politically prominent for a while with opposition parties using it as a stick to beat a government they feel they can unseat after five consecutive terms of office. This will cause an extended and trickily public relations problem for Beijing.
Update: From the Foreign Ministry’s Oct. 19th press briefing:
[Foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu] said the matter was largely resolved but China would keep cooperating closely with Zambia to ensure any outstanding issues were settled according to law and safeguard the security and legitimate interests of Chinese companies and personnel.