Last week, President Edgar Lungu stunned the whole country when he made reference to the Chinese people, saying they were many and as resilient as cockroaches, which can survive any tough environment. He said just like stubborn cockroaches that hide anywhere they find space, like in the fridge or stove, Chinese are all over Zambia and it is impossible to stop their influx.
“This cry about Chinese won’t help us. Chinese population is about 1.3 billion. So, invariably, you will find Chinese all over and when you say, ‘eliminate Chinese from Zambia’, you are wasting your time. You say ‘let’s chase Chinese from Zambia’, how? Because in Europe they are there, in America they are there, in Australia they are there. Allow them to conduct business so that we work together and prosper our country. Let’s not be xenophobic, it will not help us,” that’s what President Lungu said initially.
But in his humble Presidential wisdom, he did not think that he had succeeded to deliver his point, so he went on to unleash the most unthinkable analogy in describing the Chinese people.
“Someone told me that Chinese are like cockroaches. The Chinese, like cockroaches, are resilient and able to survive in extreme temperatures. Cockroaches are resilient, they survive in fridges, they survive in stoves, they survive extreme temperatures, very cold rooms, you’ll find a cockroach, very hot temperatures, you’ll will find a cockroach. So, this man was saying the Chinese are like cockroaches, they survive everywhere. We can’t eliminate them, let’s just work with them.”
Someone has to remind President Lungu that what comes out of his mouth effectively becomes government position, and consequently turns into policy. It seems this man forgets that he is Head of State, he thinks he still has the liberty to crack ‘tavern jokes’ like he used to do back in the days in Chawama compound.
Mr Lungu, Sir, this is not a casino. You are a President and presiding over the affairs of 16 million citizens, some of whom don’t even know you and don’t care whatever alcoholic addictions you may have. But it is your duty to represent them diligently and diplomatically to the outside world.
It is hard enough to imagine that someone had the audacity of going to President Lungu, a sitting Head of State, to make such a degrading and inhuman reference to the Chinese people. But it is even worse to learn that, instead of taking offence and reprimanding whoever coined that stupid analogy, our President felt this was such an accurate definition of Chinese people that deserved to be repeated from a Presidential podium at an economics forum.
To be very honest, we actually don’t believe that anyone told this to President Lungu, he thought about this reference himself and used it because that is what he thinks about the Chinese people. In our view, President Lungu doesn’t naturally like the Chinese, but he simply loves their money. If these Chinese did not have as many dollars to stash into his private pockets, our President would have worse references to describe citizens of the Asian country who are in Zambia to do business.
We saw that when parliamentarians challenged Vice-President Inonge Wina to explain this statement, the old lady struggled to defend this stereotype remark from her boss, and all she could say was “you cannot call human beings cockroaches.” Now, imagine if it was a member of the opposition who had made such a reference to the Chinese people. That person would have been in police cells today for uttering words culpable of inciting xenophobic attacks on foreigners. But police have closed their ears because President Lungu was simply doing ‘chimbuya’ with the Chinese, we are told.
We have to make it clear that our position has not changed, we don’t like what the Chinese are doing to Zambia. It is our opinion that a majority of Chinese who are in the country to do business have exacerbated corruption in government. Using their financial influence, they have taken over control of institutions that are responsible for running tender processes and awarding contracts; and on the other hand, they have taken over small businesses from Zambians. Some of them have no regard for the labour laws of this land and they treat local workers as they please, knowing very well that no one can touch them as long as influential Cabinet ministers are on their pay roll.
It is disheartening to hear a President fail to address such critical issues and simply saying: ‘tolerate these Chinese like you have tolerated the cockroaches in your houses, because they behave the same way.’ Chinese are not cockroaches, Mr Lungu, they are human beings with ears; they are capable of listening when someone stamps authority and tells them to stop what they are doing wrong. That is how they have curbed corruption in China, because they know that their government means business, when it says ‘stop it.’
But our President is weak on corruption. His entire Cabinet is very corruptible. That is what strengthens the relationship that this government has with the Chinese people. It is all about their money. It doesn’t matter whether Chinese behave like cockroaches; to them, as long as they take money to State House, they will let them exploit the country’s resources (like cockroaches) under the cover of night while Zambians are asleep.
It is the same thing that can be said about President Lungu’s relationship with the Bemba-speaking people. Our President was able to speak with confidence that out of every 10 Bembas six are thieves, because that is what he thinks about the people from the North. Just like he doesn’t need the Chinese for anything else, President Lungu doesn’t need anything from the Bembas, apart from their votes. He thinks they are thieves, but he is tolerating them because they are the majority tribe and he needs them to stay in power.
For a man who has no clear or traceable origins in Zambia, this was not only a miscalculated stereotype statement, but also a political gaffe that may backfire on him.