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Zambia's Chinese Debt in the Pandemic Era

In November 2020, Zambia became the first African country to default on its Eurobonds during the COVID’s pandemic, bringing the country’s debt distress into headlines around the world. Bondholders’ refusal to provide debt suspension rested largely on fears that Zambia was not disclosing significant liabilities to Chinese creditors. In August 2021, national elections led to a surprise upset. A new president, Hakainde Hichilema took office, facing a debt burden that had never been fully transparent to Zambia’s public and the world. In a meeting with reporters from Bloomberg shortly after taking office, the new president commented: “We had known for a long time that there was non-full disclosure... So now that we’re in, we are beginning to see that the debt numbers that were being talked about officially are not really the comprehensive numbers.” The China Africa Research Initiative (CARI) has been tracking Chinese lending to African governments and their state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in Africa for much of the past decade. This CARI Briefing Paper is our contribution to public understanding of Zambia’s Chinese debt. We estimate that Zambia’s outstanding external debt to all Chinese financiers, official and commercial, was approximately US 6.6 billion in August 2021. We do not anticipate much change in this figure for the rest of 2021.