A Matter of Trust: Three Case Studies of Chinese and Zambian Relationships at the Workplace

Janny Chang

A Matter of Trust: Three Case Studies of Chinese and Zambian Relationships at the Workplace
Chang, Janny
Thesis Advisor(s):
Bond, George
Ph.D., Teachers College
Anthropology and Education
Persistent URL:
The dissertation challenges sweeping generalizations in media discourses about China and African relations. Using Zambia as one of the best-case scenarios due to its political stability, welcoming attitude towards foreign investors and overall popularity among Chinese investors, the dissertation aims to disaggregate "China" and "Zambia" by focusing on individual and small group working relationships. It does so by elaborating on the basis and nature of different types of workplace relationships among Chinese and Zambians working together. Myriad relationships include alliances, friendships, group collaborations and modes of conflict and competition. Contextualized in two urban areas in Zambia, the study examines these relationships in three case studies, including a Chinese telecommunications company, Chinese and Zambian entrepreneurial ventures, and a Zambian construction firm. The Chinese telecoms company represents the best-case scenario of highly educated, skilled, and ambitious Chinese and Zambian technology professionals working side by side. This dissertation compares and contrasts interactions in this best-case scenario to more ad hoc individual and small group mining partnerships formed between Chinese and Zambian entrepreneurs. These cases highlight the diversity of Chinese and Zambian engagements at the ground level. Capturing the full complexity of their engagements also entail understanding Zambian-to-ambian interactions and relationships at the workplace. Thus, a third case scenario provides useful comparison data for how Zambian professionals interact with each other at a successful Zambian construction firm in comparison to the Chinese telecoms firm. Showcasing these three case studies illustrates the diversity of Chinese and Zambian engagements at the ground level and illuminates potential distinctive features in Chinese-to-Zambian workplace interactions and relationships missing or overlapping with Zambian-to-Zambian interactions. This dissertation explores the different dimensions of workplace relationships by scrutinizing different perceptions of trust and how trust underscores the formation of groups. By understanding the basis and nature of these relationships and interactions, I identify the strategies that Chinese and Zambians use to achieve their desired professional goals. Assuming that Zambians are not victims, I explore how they use their experiences and relationships to make improvements in their lives. In doing so, I identify potential spaces for Chinese and Zambian alliances that provide benefits to Zambians by encouraging entrepreneurial aspirations and instigating the growth of domestic firms in the near future. The benefits are accompanied by serious challenges, mainly concentrated on perceptions and handling of money. This study examines the challenges by analyzing how larger economic forces in China and Zambia play out in individual interactions and the effects of proper risks and rewards that have placed Chinese individuals and businesses at an advantage. As this dissertation illustrates through an analysis of business budgets as well as numerous court cases, the risks and rewards and complaints of labor violations are strongly tied to domestic policy and the weakening of nstitutions, the state and enforcement of laws. Because of the challenges, trust and relationships figure prominently in reducing risks and substituting for the legal contract. This dissertation relies upon grounded ethnographic methods, including participant observation, informal chats and 16 structured interviews with Chinese and Zambian employees at the Chinese firm and 12 structured interviews with Zambian employees at the Zambian firm. Interviews, documents and observations were used in a close case study of the establishment of Chinese and Zambian entrepreneurs in the mining industry. It also draws upon preliminary research conducted in 2007, 2008, 2010 and then a 13-month stint from 2011 to 2012. The initial inspiration was provided during a volunteer trip to The Gambia in 2003. In sum, this dissertation aims to challenge generalizations made in the media about a unified and neocolonial "China" and a cohesive and victimized "Africa." It challenges the generalizations by highlighting individual stories and exploring in depth the different kinds of relationships and interactions among Chinese and Zambian technology professionals and entrepreneurs. Since the pervasiveness of their interactions is a fairly new phenomenon, this dissertation uncovers the kinds of challenges and opportunities that emerge from the process of learning to work together. Finally, this dissertation seeks to identify the spaces where Zambians benefit from working with the Chinese and how they use different strategies to maximize the skills, experience and knowledge to their advantage.
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Suggested Citation:
Janny Chang, , A Matter of Trust: Three Case Studies of Chinese and Zambian Relationships at the Workplace, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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