Zambia is embroiled in a diplomatic spat with China after Zambian police arrested 31 Chinese citizens on suspicion of illegal copper mining in the country.
The arrests were carried out on Tuesday in a joint operation between the police and immigration officials in the town of Chingola, 400 kilometers north of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, according to the BBC.
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Yesterday, China released a strongly-worded statement accusing Zambian authorities of taking unlawful actions against its citizens without providing enough evidence to support their claims.
“The government has always asked Chinese companies and citizens to respect the laws of the countries where they operate and does not shield illegal action…But China opposes selective law-enforcement actions against its citizens,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was quoted by Quartz Media.
Chunying added that a two-month pregnant woman, who recently got married to a translator working for a private Chinese mining company in Zambia, is among those arrested.
The 31 Chinese citizens, who have already been flown back to China, are accused of, among other things, running illegal smelting plants and employing children.
“We are here to put an end [to] this criminality. Foreign investors who come into this country must work within the confines of the law. Those who break the law will be flushed out,” the Zambian Home Affairs Minister Stephen Kampyongo told the Times of Zambia.
For over a decade, China has been investing heavily in Zambia’s copper mining industry, leading to an unprecedented increase in Chinese citizens in the South African country.
Bilateral trade between China and Zambia, mainly involving Zambian exports of copper to China, has grown from just $100 million in 2000 to $4 billion in 2016.
Other Chinese investments in Zambia include agriculture, infrastructure, and energy projects, such as the 750 megawatt hydro-power station in Chikankata district.
But even with these great investments, Zambia has often been cited as an example of how destructive Chinese investments in Africa can be, with frequent labor disputes between local workers and their Chinese employers becoming commonplace.
In 2010, two Chinese managers of a mining company in Zambia were accused of attempted murder after they fired live bullets on striking miners following a pay dispute. The charges were later dropped.
Two years later, Zambian miners killed a Chinese manager during a riot at a local coal mine.
Many are now waiting to see the kind of impact the current diplomatic row will have on the bittersweet relationship between the two countries.