Better Fortunes? Better Fortunes? An Anthropological Study of Sino-Zambian Encounters at Chinese Workplaces in Zambia

Start date: 26 January, 2012 End date: 13 June, 2012 Project type: Master's Thesis (prior to 2018) Project code: A15764 Countries: Zambia Institutions: University of Copenhagen (UCPH), Denmark Grant recipient: Mette Kjærtinge Total grant: 15,000 DKK



Zambia is, for many Chinese people, a land of opportunity. During the last decade, the number of Chinese coming to live, work and do business in Zambia, has increased substantially, causing for countless of Zambians and Chinese to work together in Chinese companies in the country. This thesis examines the impact of China’s and individual Chinese engagement in Zambia from the perspective of individual Chinese and Zambians, working together in Chinese companies. It builds on a four-month ethnographic fieldwork in Zambia in 2012, in mainly different government- and private-owned Chinese companies, and seeks to address the question of how their relations are manifested in these workplaces, and what conflicts and potential opportunities they engender.


The thesis explores Zambians’ and Chinese different perceptions and expectations to their work in the Chinese companies and how these come to affect their actions and behaviours towards each other. The move to Zambia demands many sacrifices according to the Chinese, but they perceive it to be the most advantageous manner of fulfilling their aspirations for success, to secure the future for their family and themselves. The work in the companies is, for most Zambians, a least desirable option, but while some perceive the job to be ‘just a job’ that fulfils their basic needs, others perceive the job to be a stepping-stone, finding gratification in acquiring new skills, and trust that the job can facilitate achieving their aspirations. But due to the fact that Chinese managers primarily learn about local work- and business practices from other Chinese, and there is a general distance between Zambians and Chinese, in terms of social and work-related interaction and communication, they have difficulties in understanding their respective motivations, aspirations and expectations to work. As a consequence, they fail to understand each other’s different manners of performing work, which make their relations awkward and unstable, and have the potential of precipitating conflicts. Sino (Chinese)-Zambian interactions continually oscillate between mutually approved friendship and conforming to the conventional hierarchical structures, in which the Chinese are in charge, and because of the lack of social interaction and consensus of work norms and rules, it makes it difficult to discern what types of behaviours are acceptable in these workplaces. Sino-Zambian relations are therefore based on an awkward foundation that can be both empowering and restricting. Their different expectations to their work, added to their individual struggles for wellbeing, are the source of many of their conflicts, and many Chinese managers express a need and willingness to improve working conditions and their relations with Zambians – they just seem unaware how to go about it. Nevertheless, Zambians and Chinese also find interludes in their everyday interaction that contribute to loosening up their relations. And the fact that they take pleasure in learning from each other also plays an important part in developing their relations in a direction where they see more eye-to-eye. The thesis concludes that Sino-Zambian working relations have the potential of facilitating new opportunities for both Chinese and Zambians, though it will be a challenge and demand great efforts from all sides.