Finance Minister Margaret Mwanakatwe has also come out to insist that, in the first half of 2018, $342-million (R4.87-billion) was paid in interest to creditors, of which 53% were commercial sector – and only 30% of which were Chinese.
But the country’s main opposition party has put China’s debt dominance at the forefront of its campaign to unseat the government.
Opposition figure Stephen Katuka warned against the “rate Zambia is entertaining Chinese nationals which are displacing Zambians through big financial offers”.
Katuka, who is the secretary general of the United Party for National Development, described the replacement of Zambian workers with Chinese labourers – as is customary on Chinese-run projects – as “a time bomb”.
“If this situation is allowed to degenerate, it may lead to aggression on foreign nationals,” he added.
There have been several high profile incidents of Chinese managers allegedly mistreating their Zambian workers.
“In some instances the Chinese are beating Zambians in places of work for simply failing to follow instructions,” said Katuka.
Typically reclusive, China’s ambassador to Lusaka Lie Jie was drawn into the growing furore to defend Beijing’s intentions.
“I feel strange when I hear we want to colonise Africa,” he told journalists recently, categorically denying that China was seeking to buy Zambia’s publicly-owned companies.
Economist and head of Zambia’s Private Sector Development Association Yosuf Dodia told AFP that Chinese investment should be seen as an opportunity not a burden.
“Zambia has been dominated by the West for 100 years… and we are seeing poverty all over the continent,” he said.
“The partnership level is around $10-billion (R142.6-billion) – and that is good. There is no other country that offers those kinds of opportunities.”
The benefit of such vast investment is not always felt on the ground, however.
“I am not happy with the dominance of Chinese contractors. In the first place, the money that they get from these contracts is externalised and all that they return here are meagre wages,” said Edgar Syakachoma, himself a contractor.
“Let the government also give us the contracts so that they benefit Zambians.”