I think I am probably going to die any minute now. An inflamed,
deceived mob of about 50 desperate men are crowding round the car, some
trying to turn it over, others beating at it with large rocks, all
yelling insults and curses.
They have just started to smash the windows. Next, they will pull us out and, well, let's not think about that ...
am trying not to meet their eyes, but they are staring at me and my
companions with rage and hatred such as I haven't seen in a human face
before. Those companions, Barbara Jones and Richard van Ryneveld, are -
like me - quite helpless in the back seats.
If we get out, we will certainly be beaten to death. If we stay where we are, we will probably be beaten to death.
two African companions have - crazily in our view - got out of the car
to try to reason with the crowd. It is clear to us that you might as
well preach non-violence to a tornado.
At last, after what must
have been about 40 seconds but that felt like half an hour, one of the
pair saw sense, leapt back into the car and reversed wildly down the
rocky, dusty path - leaving his friend behind.
By the grace of
God we did not slither into the ditch, roll over or burst a tyre.
Through the dust we churned up as we fled, we could see our would-be
killers running with appalling speed to catch up. There was just time
to make a crazy two-point turn which allowed us to go forwards and so
We had pretty much abandoned our other guide
to whatever his fate might be (this was surprisingly easy to justify to
myself at the time) when we saw that he had broken free and was running
with Olympic swiftness, just ahead of pursuers half hidden by the dust.
We flung open a rear door so he could scramble in and, engine
grinding, we veered off, bouncing painfully over the ruts and rocks.
feared there would be another barricade to stop our escape, and it
would all begin again. But there wasn't, and we eventually realised we
had got away, even the man whose idiocy nearly got us killed.
told us it was us they wanted, not him, or he would never have escaped.
We ought to be dead. We are not. It is an interesting feeling, not
Why did they want to kill us? What was the
reason for their fury? They thought that if I reported on their way of
life they might lose their livings.
Livings? Dyings, more likely.
Peking power: A Chinese supervisor cajoles local workers as they dig a trench in Kabwe, Zambia
poor, hopeless, angry people exist by grubbing for scraps of cobalt and
copper ore in the filth and dust of abandoned copper mines in Congo,
sinking perilous 80ft shafts by hand, washing their finds in
cholera-infected streams full of human filth, then pushing enormous
two-hundredweight loads uphill on ancient bicycles to the nearby town
of Likasi where middlemen buy them to sell on, mainly to Chinese
businessmen hungry for these vital metals.
To see them, as they
plod miserably past, is to be reminded of pictures of unemployed miners
in Thirties Britain, stumbling home in the drizzle with sacks of coal
scraps gleaned from spoil heaps.
Except that here the unsparing
heat makes the labour five times as hard, and the conditions of work
and life are worse by far than any known in England since the 18th
Many perish as their primitive mines collapse on them,
or are horribly injured without hope of medical treatment. Many are
little more than children. On a good day they may earn $3, which just
supports a meagre existence in diseased, malarial slums.
We had been earlier to this awful pit, which looked like a penal colony in an ancient slave empire.
Defeated, bowed figures toiled endlessly in dozens of hand-dug pits. Their faces, when visible, were blank and without hope.
had been turned away by a fat, corrupt policeman who pretended our
papers weren't in order, but who was really taking instructions from a
dead-eyed, one-eared gangmaster who sat next to him.
By the time we returned with more official permits, the gangmasters had readied the ambush.
diggers feared - and their evil, sinister bosses had worked hard on
that fear - that if people like me publicised their filthy way of life,
then the mine might be closed and the $3 a day might be taken away.
I can give you no better explanation in miniature of the wicked thing that I believe is now happening in Africa.
of desperation, much of the continent is selling itself into a new era
of corruption and virtual slavery as China seeks to buy up all the
metals, minerals and oil she can lay her hands on: copper for electric
and telephone cables, cobalt for mobile phones and jet engines - the
basic raw materials of modern life.
It is crude rapacity, but to Africans and many of their leaders it is better than the alternative, which is slow starvation.
The Congolese risk their lives digging through mountains of mining waste looking for scraps of metal ore
is my view - and not just because I was so nearly killed - that China's
cynical new version of imperialism in Africa is a wicked enterprise.
China offers both rulers and the ruled in Africa the simple, squalid advantages of shameless exploitation.
the governments, there are gargantuan loans, promises of new roads,
railways, hospitals and schools - in return for giving Peking a free
and tax-free run at Africa's rich resources of oil, minerals and
For the people, there are these wretched leavings,
which, miserable as they are, must be better than the near-starvation
they otherwise face.
Persuasive academics advised me before I
set off on this journey that China's scramble for Africa had much to be
said for it. They pointed out China needs African markets for its
goods, and has an interest in real economic advance in that broken
For once, they argued, a foreign intervention in
Africa might work precisely because it is so cynical and
self-interested. They said Western aid, with all its conditions, did
little to create real advances in Africa, laughing as they declared:
'The only country that ever got rich through donations is the Vatican.'
Why get so het up about African corruption anyway? Is it really so much worse than corruption in Russia or India?
it really our business to try to act as missionaries of purity? Isn't
what we call 'corruption' another name for what Africans view as
looking after their families?
And what about China herself?
Despite the country's convulsive growth and new wealth, it still
suffers gravely from poverty and backwardness, as I have seen for
myself in its dingy sweatshops, the primitive electricity-free villages
of Canton, the dark and squalid mining city of Datong and the
cave-dwelling settlements that still rely on wells for their water.
the murderous disaster of Mao, and the long chaos that went before,
China longs above all for stable prosperity. And, as one genial and
open-minded Chinese businessman said to me in Congo as we sat over a
beer in the decayed colonial majesty of Lubumbashi's Belgian-built Park
Hotel: 'Africa is China's last hope.'
I find this argument
quite appealing, in theory. Britain's own adventures in Africa were not
specially benevolent, although many decent men did what they could to
enforce fairness and justice amid the bigotry and exploitation.
Taking over: Chinese building workers in Zambia
is noticeable that in much former British territory we have left behind
plenty of good things and habits that are absent in the lands once
ruled by rival empires.
Even so, with Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Uganda on our conscience, who are we to lecture others?
chose to look at China's intervention in two countries, Zambia and the
'Democratic Republic of the Congo', because they lie side by side;
because one was once British and the other Belgian.
Zambia's imperfect but functioning democracy, there is actual
opposition to the Chinese presence, while in the despotic Congo,
opposition to President Joseph Kabila is unwise, to put it mildly.
Congo is barely a state at all, and still hosts plenty of fighting not all that far from here.
and images of Joseph's murdered father Laurent are everywhere in an
obvious attempt to create a cult of personality on which stability may
one day be based. Portraits of Joseph himself scowl from every wall.
have decided not to name most of the people who spoke to me, even
though some of them gave me permission to do so, because I am not sure
they know just how much of a risk they may be running by criticising
the Chinese in Africa.
I know from personal experience with
Chinese authority that Peking regards anything short of deep respect as
insulting, and it does not forget a slight.
I also know that this over-sensitive vigilance is present in Africa.
Mail on Sunday team was reported to the authorities in Zambia's Copper
Belt by Chinese managers who had seen us taking photographs of a
graveyard at Chambishi where 54 victims of a disaster in a Chinese-run
explosives factory are buried. Within an hour, local 'security'
officials were buzzing round us trying to find out what we were up to.
is why I have some time for the Zambian opposition politician Michael
Sata, known as 'King Cobra' because of his fearless combative nature
(but also, say his opponents, because he is so slippery).
has challenged China's plans to invest in Zambia, and is publicly
suspicious of them. At elections two years ago, the Chinese were widely
believed to have privately threatened to pull out of the country if he
won, and to have helped the government parties win.
Peking regards Zambia as a great prize, alongside its other favoured nations of Sudan (oil), Angola (oil) and Congo (metals).
Fighting back: Peter Hitchens with Michael Sata, the opposition politician nicknamed 'King Cobra'
has cancelled Zambia's debts, eased Zambian exports to China,
established a 'special economic zone' in the Copper Belt, offered to
build a sports stadium, schools, a hospital and an anti-malaria centre
as well as providing scholarships and dispatching experts to help with
agriculture. Zambia-China trade is growing rapidly, mainly in the form
All this has aroused the suspicions of Mr Sata, a
populist politician famous for his blunt, combative manner and his
harsh, biting attacks on opponents, and who was once a porter who swept
the platforms at Victoria Station in London.
Now the leader of
the Patriotic Front, with a respectable chance of winning a
presidential election set for the end of October, Sata says: 'The
Chinese are not here as investors, they are here as invaders.
bring Chinese to come and push wheelbarrows, they bring Chinese
bricklayers, they bring Chinese carpenters, Chinese plumbers. We have
plenty of those in Zambia.'
This is true. In Lusaka and in the
Copper Belt, poor and lowly Chinese workers, in broad-brimmed straw
hats from another era, are a common sight at mines and on building
sites, as are better-dressed Chinese supervisors and technicians.
are Chinese restaurants and Chinese clinics and Chinese housing
compounds - and a growing number of Chinese flags flapping over
factories and smelters.
'We don't need to import labourers from
China,' Sata says. 'We need to import people with skills we don't have
in Zambia. The Chinese are not going to train our people in how to push
He meets me in the garden of his not specially
grand house in the old-established and verdant Rhodes Park section of
Lusaka. It is guarded by uniformed security men, its walls protected by
barbed wire and broken glass.
'Wherever our Chinese "brothers"
are they don't care about the local workers,' he complains, alleging
that Chinese companies have lax safety procedures and treat their
African workers like dirt.
In language which seems exaggerated,
but which will later turn out to be at least partly true, he claims:
'They employ people in slave conditions.'
He also accuses
Chinese overseers of frequently beating up Zambians. His claim is given
force by a story in that morning's Lusaka newspapers about how a
Zambian building worker in Ndola, in the Copper Belt, was allegedly
beaten unconscious by four Chinese co-workers angry that he had gone to
sleep on the job.
I later checked this account with the victim's relatives in an Ndola shanty town and found it to be true.
Evidence of China is never very far away
a government minister, Alice Simago, was shown weeping on TV after she
saw at first hand the working conditions at a Chinese-owned coal mine
in the Southern Province.
When I contacted her, she declined to
speak to me about this - possibly because criticism of the Chinese is
not welcome among most of the Zambian elite.
deputy general secretary of the Zambian Mineworkers' Union, also backed
up Sata's view, saying: 'They just don't understand about safety. They
are more interested in profit.'
As for their general treatment
of African workers, Lukwesa says he knows of cases where Chinese
supervisors have kicked Zambians. He summed up their attitude like
this: 'They are harsh to Zambians, and they don't get on well with
Sata warns against the enormous loans and offers of help
with transport, schools and health care with which Peking now sweetens
its attempts to buy up Africa's mineral reserves.
with the Democratic Republic of the Congo is, in my opinion,
corruption,' he says, comparing this with Western loans which require
strong measures against corruption.
Everyone in Africa knows
China's Congo deal - worth almost £5billion in loans, roads, railways,
hospitals and schools - was offered after Western experts demanded
tougher anti-corruption measures in return for more aid.
knows the Chinese are unpopular in his country. Zambians use a mocking
word - 'choncholi' - to describe the way the Chinese speak. Zambian
businessmen gossip about the way the Chinese live in separate
compounds, where - they claim - dogs are kept for food.
are persistent rumours, which cropped up in almost every conversation I
had in Zambia, that many of the imported Chinese workforce are
convicted criminals whom China wants to offload in Africa. I was unable
to confirm this but, given China's enormous gulag and the harshness of
life for many migrant workers, it is certainly not impossible.
warns that 'sticks and stones' may one day fly if China does not treat
Zambians better. He now promises a completely new approach: 'I used to
sweep up at your Victoria Station, and I never got any complaints about
my work. I want to sweep my country even cleaner than I swept your
Some Africa experts tend to portray Sata as a
troublemaker. His detractors whisper that he is a mouthpiece for
Taiwan, which used to be recognised by many African states but which
faces almost total isolation thanks to Peking's new Africa policy.
his claims were confirmed by a senior worker in Chambishi, scene of the
2005 explosion. This man, whom I will call Thomas, is serious,
experienced and responsible. His verdict on the Chinese is devastating.
He recalls the aftermath of the blast, when he had the ghastly
task of collecting together what remained of the men who died: 'Zambia,
a country of 11million people, went into official mourning for this
'A Chinese supervisor said to me in broken English,
"In China, 5,000 people die, and there is nothing. In Zambia, 50 people
die and everyone is weeping." To them, 50 people are nothing.'
sort of thing creates resentment. Earlier this year African workers at
the new Chinese smelter at Chambishi rioted over low wages and what
they thought were unsafe working conditions.
President Hu Jintao came to Zambia in 2006, he had to cancel a visit to
the Copper Belt for fear of hostile demonstrations. Thomas says: 'The
people who advised Hu Jintao not to come were right.'
suspects Chinese arrogance and brutality towards Africans is not racial
bigotry, but a fear of being seen to be weak. 'They are trying to prove
they are not inferior to the West. They are trying too hard.
they ask you to do something and you don't do it, they think you're not
doing it because they aren't white. People put up with the kicks and
blows because they need work to survive.'
Many in Africa also
accuse the Chinese of unconcealed corruption. This is specially obvious
in the 'Democratic Republic of the Congo', currently listed as the most
corrupt nation on Earth.
A North-American businessman who runs
a copper smelting business in Katanga Province told me how his firm
tried to obey safety laws.
They are constantly targeted by
official safety inspectors because they refuse to bribe them.
Meanwhile, Chinese enterprises nearby get away with huge breaches of
the law - because they paid bribes.
'We never pay,' he said, 'because once you pay you become their bitch; you will pay for ever and ever.'
businessman shrugged over the way he is forced to wait weeks to get his
products out of the country, while the Chinese have no such problems.
not sure the Chinese even know there are customs regulations,' he said.
'They don't fill in the forms, they just pay. I try to be philosophical
about it, but it is not easy.'
Unlike orderly Zambia, Congo is
a place of chaos, obvious privation, tyranny dressed up as democracy
for public-relations purposes, and fear.
This is Katanga, the
mineral-rich slice of land fought over furiously in the early Sixties
in post-colonial Africa's first civil war. Brooding over its capital,
Lubumbashi, is a 400ft black hill: the accumulated slag and waste of 80
years of copper mining and smelting.
Now, thanks to a crazy
rise in the price of copper and cobalt, the looming, sinister mound is
being quarried - by Western business, by the Chinese and by bands of
Congolese who grub and scramble around it searching for scraps of
copper or traces of cobalt, smashing lumps of slag with great hammers
as they hunt for any way of paying for that night's supper.
dusk falls and the shadows lengthen, the scene looks like the blasted
land of Mordor in Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings: a pre-medieval prospect
of hopeless, condemned toil in pits surrounded by stony desolation.
them tower the leaning ruins of colossal abandoned factories: monuments
to the wars and chaos that have repeatedly passed this way.
is something strange and unsettling about industrial scenes in Africa,
pithead winding gear and gaunt chimneys rising out of tawny grasslands
dotted with anthills and banana palms. It looks as if someone has made
a grave mistake.
And there is a lesson for colonial pride and
ambition in the streets of Lubumbashi - 80 years ago an orderly Art
Deco city full of French influence and supervised by crisply starched
gendarmes, now a genial but volatile chaos of scruffy, bribe-hunting
traffic cops where it is not wise to venture out at night.
The once-graceful Belgian buildings, gradually crumbling under thick layers of paint, long ago lost their original purpose.
come and go in Africa, some greedy, some idealistic, some halfway
between. Time after time, they fail or are defeated, leaving behind
scars, slag-heaps, ruins and graveyards, disillusion and
We have come a long way from Cecil Rhodes to
Bob Geldof, but we still have not brought much happiness with us, and
even Nelson Mandela's vaunted 'Rainbow Nation' in South Africa is
careering rapidly towards banana republic status.
Now a new
great power, China, is scrambling for wealth, power and influence in
this sad continent, without a single illusion or pretence.
Perhaps, after two centuries of humbug, this method will work where all other interventions have failed.
after seeing the bitter, violent desperation unleashed in the mines of
Likasi, I find it hard to believe any good will come of it.