- When China Met Africa dir. by Marc Francis and Nick Francis
The warming of relations between China and many African governments since the early 2000s has provoked considerable academic interest, as has the accompanying rise in Chinese investments and commercial activity across the African continent. This documentary, directed by Marc and Nick Francis, focuses upon Chinese relations with Zambia and provides portraits [End Page 319] of some of the individual actors in this new era of relations between the two countries. The film provides insight into the political processes that have brought about greater cooperation between China and Zambia and manages to convey some of the personal issues at stake for those hopeful Chinese entrepreneurs and managers who relocate to the continent. It falls short, however, of offering a nuanced picture of the impact of Chinese commercial activity upon Zambian society.
After a short introductory scene that identifies the 2006 FOCAC (Forum on China–Africa Cooperation) summit as a crucial event in the development and strengthening of relations between China and Africa, the film follows three narrative strands. These strands are interspersed and begin in 2009, three years after the 2006 summit. Liu Changming is a former office worker from China who earlier brought his family to Zambia in order to start a farming business. He is in the process of expanding his operation and employs Zambian laborers, apparently on a casual basis. He and his Chinese colleagues communicate instructions to the workers in basic English, frequently chastising them for working too slowly. He is proud of what he has achieved and appears to enjoy his status as a landowner, telling the camera, “I was an employee in China, while I am an employer in Zambia. . ., a totally different position.”
The second strand of the documentary follows Li Jianguo, a project manager for China-Henan International Corporation, who is coordinating the rebuilding of one of Zambia’s most important highways. While the corporation has won the contract from the Zambian government to rebuild the road, the onset of the global financial crisis puts the government’s ability to continue funding the project into doubt, and by the end of the film Li is seen downsizing his team, uncertain whether work will continue. Li’s personal commitment to the project is clear: “Roads,” he says, “are like a country’s arteries.” The considerable amount of footage devoted to the roadwork provides an important insight into the dynamics of the relations between Chinese managers and African laborers.
The third narrative strand focuses upon the political aspects of Zambia’s relationship with China. Felix Mutati MP, Minister for Trade, Commerce and Industry, is seen visiting a Chinese-operated copper extraction facility in order to review its progress. He is also shown visiting China in order to generate commercial interest in Zambian mining and hospitality. Later a Chinese delegation visits Zambia in order to sign important loan and grant agreements. While these scenes are engaging and give some hint of how the two countries perceive each other, I found the pomp and ceremony of official visits and trade meetings somewhat overrepresented in the film at the expense of a more detailed examination of how Chinese commerce and investment influence African society.
To this criticism, I would add the comment that throughout the film the experience of Chinese subjects is privileged. For example, Liu and Li are granted considerably more interiority than the Africans whom they employ. Only very infrequently does the viewer hear from the Africans whom [End Page 320] we see working the fields and resurfacing the road. One such instance—when the roadworkers share their feelings about how their Chinese employers treat them—gives an angle on the workers that remains present, yet under-developed, throughout the film. More of such footage would have helped to develop the contrast between working cultures that the directors are obviously trying to convey. Occasional scenes demonstrate the workers’ expression of their own agency—in one scene, for example, several farmworkers talk in their own language about...