China-Africa: A Marriage Of Convenience?

China’s growing relationship with Africa represents, at a macro level, an enormous shift of power and influence in the world from West to East. A thought-provoking new documentary When China Met Africa looks at how these changes are taking place at the micro level. Focusing on the daily lives of a Chinese farmer, a road […]


China’s growing relationship with Africa represents, at a macro level, an enormous shift of power and influence in the world from West to East. A thought-provoking new documentary When China Met Africa looks at how these changes are taking place at the micro level. Focusing on the daily lives of a Chinese farmer, a road builder and a Zambian Minister, it presents a side of an expanding global power that has not been seen before.

Africa, the Minister sits in his office in front of a blackboard covered with writing in spidery Chinese characters and smiles expansively at the film camera: “We don’t understand what it says, but it gives you a spirit of imagination.” When this widely praised documentary When China Met Africa was released, Felix Mutati was Zambia’s Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry.

In 2006, the two nations repledged their allegiance to common goals at the China Africa Summit in Beijing. China asserted that it was Africa’s “close friend, reliable partner and good brother”. Despite decades of Western aid, African countries had remained among the world’s poorest, but with China’s help, all that was about to change.

Just five years later, more than one million Chinese live and work in Africa. The film turns its cameras on two of them in Zambia.

Mr Liu is the owner of four farms, on land he bought and that his African labourers have hacked out of the bush. In China, he was an office worker, but here he’s a landowner of 10 years’ standing and person of substance. He and his extended family live, however, in a shabby single-storey cement-block building, their television permanently tuned to a Chinese station.

The second Chinese to feature is Mr Li, an engineer, and the project manager for the China Henan International Corporation’s contract to upgrade 323km of road between Serenje and Mansa in the northern Luapula province. Serious and conscientious, he is dedicated to providing quality, meeting deadlines and ensuring profit for his employers.

When China Met Africa was made by brothers Marc and Nick Francis, whose previous film, the acclaimed Black Gold (2006), followed an Ethiopian coffee farmer’s attempts to get a fair price for his beans. Marc has lived in China’s Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen and is a Mandarin speaker.

In the making of this film, they spoke to hundreds of Chinese people in Zambia, a country whose relationship with China goes back 50 years from the building of the Tazara railway to the founding of China’s first Special Economic Zone in Africa. The film is an intimate portrait of that relationship through the lives of these three people (the Zambian Minister and the two Chinese). With no commentary, it juxtaposes the different Chinese experiences of Africa – from small-scale entrepreneurs to the official visit of the Chinese Commerce Minister and his delegation flying in on a private jet.

At the screening, I spoke to one of the film makers, Nick Francis, who commented on aspects of the film. “Most of the coverage we had seen about China in Africa in the Western media was one-dimensional and didn’t deal with the complexity of the relationship,” he said. “There’s a fundamental difference in how the West and China approach Africa.” The West is still patriarchal. “Earlier in the year, David Cameron was in Nigeria, Hillary Clinton was in Zambia: both thought it was their role to warn Africa of China’s rise and China’s presence. Now, if you’re an African minister and you’re going backwards and forwards to China signing billion-dollar deals, you’re going to wonder whether the West have really grasped what’s going on.”

Clash of language

What China and Africa have in common, apart from both being cradles of civilisation, is that they are both in a hurry. Africa is in a hurry to get the infrastructure it needs, China to become the most powerful nation on the planet. “Investors from the West come here with their PowerPoint presentations, profit and loss projections, risk assessments and income statements – and with all their flamboyant graphs!” the Minister laughs. In contrast, he says, the Chinese simply “ask me ‘What are the incentives? And where is the piece of land where we should go and work?’.” Minister Mutati visits the half-built superstructure of what will be the biggest copper smelter in sub-Saharan Africa – “Six months ago, this was all bush,” he tells the camera wonderingly, as the Chinese constructors show him round. “Xie xie,” he thanks them in Mandarin. But what the two nations also share, in everyday life, is difficulty communicating with each other. With the benefit of translated subtitles, we, the viewers, can understand the comments they make about each other and see that many misunderstandings result. The cultural differences are also highlighted and  one can immediately understand the hostility that the Chinese presence has aroused among common people in Zambia.

On Tian Ziang farm, Liu’s sister-in-law high-handedly oversees the rows of Zambian men and women hoeing the fields by hand; they are not working fast and hard enough for her liking, and they take time off to go to church on Sundays. Her harangue to them is met by barely concealed amusement. “She thinks we are cows, but we are bulldozers!” the men scoff at her among themselves.

In another scene, it’s payday and Liu yet again makes excuses why he can only pay his workers part of their wages today – business hasn’t been good, he says, and they’ll have to wait another week for the rest. “It’s always Friday!” the assembled group of workers mutter resignedly to each other as the unfortunate go-between relays the bad news.

We see long queues of men applying to drive the industrial tipper trucks that are used to shift loads of earth on the building site: it might be an opportunity to work, whether or not they have the right experience. The Chinese put them through driving tests, backing the enormous vehicles through a makeshift slalom on the work site. If they pass that, their driving licences are inspected. One man is rejected because his licence looks too new although he claims he has 10 years’ experience as a driver – “But I have been driving without a licence!” he argues desperately.

On the Serenje-Mansa road, the local workers stop steamrollering the tarmac for their lunch break and complain about the food the company provides. “It’s always cabbage,” they grumble, “We need a balanced diet.” They say they bring their own food to cook and share, to eke out their rations.

Tensions arise. “They don’t respect us much. We are not trusted. They don’t regard us Zambians as people. They’re an international company, we expect them to follow standard procedure!”

Meanwhile, project manager Li stares dismally at his spreadsheet. Only 30% of the contract price has been paid by the Zambian government. He tries to negotiate a payment with the local governor, but he’s unsuccessful and work on the road can’t continue, despite (former) President Banda flying in to the small local airport for a morale-raising visit to red-carpet greetings by the locals.

Where the two nations perhaps differ is in their attitude to competition. In the capital, Lusaka, Chinese chicken producers like Liu are ousting the local traders in the market. He grimly explains his philosophy, “It’s about survival of the fittest. The market is harsh just like the battlefield. The winner survives.”

Like David going to meet Goliath, the Minister embarks on a trade mission to Hunan Province in China. That province alone has a population of 68m compared to Zambia’s 13m: the Chinese he is due to meet comment to each other that his country is very small in comparison. The playing field is not level. Mutati sees Chinese investment as a win-win situation bringing jobs, profits and taxes. “Even 1% of China’s investment is huge. The scale is phenomenal. We need to continue to open up our economy like China and learn that development requires a lot of patience.”

But at the Hunan trade fair, and in the meetings that he and his delegation have with private companies, offering them Zambia’s land and access to its minerals, Mutati is competing with other African countries, all vying against each other to offer their resources to China, with the resultant loss of leverage in their deal making.

Big discussion

Back in Zambia, at the State House, agreements for four loans and a grant are signed amid much ceremony. Meanwhile, dutiful Li is preparing to return home. And Liu surveys his half-tamed land proudly: “My children will continue my work. I bought this farm for them.” China is in Africa for the long haul.

The film has triggered considerable discussion in Britain. On BBC radio, Lord Boateng, former British High Commissioner to South Africa, commented: “The important thing to remember is the Zambian Minister is now an ex-minister because his government lost an election to the new president, Michael Sata, who is a man who has built his political reputation on being pretty tough on the Chinese and questioning some of the contracts which his country entered into with China.

“But China is proving to be Africa’s friend: when Africa has an infrastructure investment gap of $46bn per year, China is stepping up to the mark and we are not. Frankly, well, no wonder China is welcome in Africa.”

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