Mention Zambia to middle-aged Chinese, and they are likely to recall a civil engineering project: the Tan-Zam Railway. More than 16,000 Chinese workers were shipped to Zambia in the late 1960s to build this engineering colossus – which stretched nearly 2,000km from the Zambian copper fields to the Tanzanian coast.
The hardship of the endeavour was captured by a CCTV documentary in 2006, in which one veteran remembered drinking groundwater from an elephant’s footprints, such was his thirst.
The railway project came during the Maoist heyday, with China’s paramount leader hoping to use such projects to export his own brand of international socialism. A more recent film about China and Zambia tracks something different: how China has spent much of the last decade trying to spread its own variant of capitalism.
When China Met Africa was released last month (in spite of the title, the only African country featured in the 74 minute film is Zambia). The film’s co-directors Nick and Marc Francis got to know the country well, meeting more than 100 Chinese nationals living and working in Zambia, and making an “observational film that would have no commentary”. (The finished film held true to that promise: there is no narrator, only captions explaining who people are, as well as translations of dialogue.)
It’s little surprise that many of the Chinese were hesitant about being filmed. As we pointed out in WiC129, relations between the two countries have been strained recently with Zambia’s incoming president Michael Sata running on an anti-Chinese ticket. And as we discussed in the review of Deborah Brautigam’s The Dragon’s Gift (see WiC91), the merits of China’s increasing presence in Africa have come in for wider debate, not only on the continent itself but also in Europe and the US.
The film opens with footage of President Hu Jintao’s speech at the 2006 China-Africa Summit. Addressing the continent’s leaders in Beijing, Hu declares: “Our meeting will go down in history. Both China and Africa are cradles of civilisation. China will remain a close friend, reliable partner and good brother of Africa.”
The next scene jumps to a typical morning at the Tian Xiang Farm in Zambia.
The owner Liu Changming – one of only two local Chinese who agreed to be shadowed by Marc and Nick Francis and their film crew throughout the film – is standing with his arms folded, behind a metal window grate. His daughter is checking the register in which local workers are marked as showing up for work.
Liu is proud of his achievements. Puffing repeatedly on a cigarette (something of a motif for all of the Chinese in the film), he explains that he worked in an office before he emigrated. “I was an employee in China. In Zambia I am an employer,” he affirms. “In 2006 I bought land covered in bush. Local farmers came to watch and said ‘These Chinese are hard-working. Saturday and Sunday we are at church. These Chinese are still working in the field.’” Liu then bought more farms in 2007 and 2009 and says he’ll buy another soon. As the camera wanders around his compound, Liu’s black Mercedes makes an appearance too.
Liu is a hands-on manager. We see him in his fields ordering a member of his family to show a local worker how to hoe properly. “You see. It is simple,” he insists, in heavily-accented English.
The other Chinese national to agree to be shadowed is Li Jianguo, project manager for China Henan Corporation, a construction firm. Li is rebuilding one of Zambia’s most important roads. Smoking away furiously himself, Li explains that his three priorities are to make sure the 323km highway is of high quality, that he hits construction deadlines, and that the project is a profitable one.
Living in Zambia has involved great sacrifices, Li muses, especially the distance from his family. The camera pans around his office, which is full of dead flies. That, and the pretty grim living quarters serve as a reminder that the Chinese are prepared to put up with living conditions that fewer Western expats may be prepared to tolerate.
Then we are introduced to Felix Mutati, Zambia’s minister of trade, commerce and industry. Mutati emerges as the film’s focal point thanks to his strong personality. Inside his office in Lusaka he points to Chinese characters that cover an entire wall. It looks to be an ancient script. “We don’t know what it means,” says Mutati. “But it gives you a spirit of imagination, of where you are going to lead the country. It’s a puzzle.”
He then explains why he favours the Chinese: they get things done and fast. “When I sit with investors from the Western world they show me Powerpoint presentations about projections, cashflow, balance sheets, risk assessments, with all these flamboyant graphs. I have never seen these with the Chinese. They just say what are your incentives? What piece of land can we use?”
Mutati then visits a project promising to become the largest copper smelter in sub-Saharan Africa. A hive of activity, the work looks to be nearing completion. “I was here six months ago,” says the minister. “It was all bush. It gives a sense of the pace at which these guys can deliver.”
Mutati is told it will be finished by the end of the year, using the “most advanced method in the world” and he declares it the most important event to have taken place in Zambia for a long time. And then says thank you (in Chinese, no less).
That same transformational theme recurs with Li, the project manager for China Henan. He is proud of his engineering work: “There is a common saying: ‘If you want to get rich build roads.’ Roads are like a country’s main arteries – it’s important for blood to circulate and flow well. So without roads, everything is dead and nothing can move.”
Next stop, Xiamen, where the film crew follows Mutati to a trade show. He takes a delegation to see the CEO of Gold Common Investment Group. The dealmaking is swift. Mutati has two tribal elders with him who want to build a mine and a hotel. A smiling translator tells the Chinese CEO: “You can build on the Big Chief’s land.” A round of applause ensues.
Later in Changsha, Mutati addresses a dinner event of Chinese moneymen: “This is a win-win equation. Investors from China make profits and Zambia creates jobs and raises taxes. Zambia wins, China wins.”
As he passes through Changsha’s new airport, Mutati reflects: “We need to open up the economy, just like China did.” But a few scenes later, an airport in Zambia offers a stark contrast, welcoming the arrival of the Zambian president’s private jet (made by Chinese aviation firm, Avic). China Henan’s Li is there to shake the presidential hand.
In another airport scene, this time in the capital Lusaka, China’s commerce minister, Chen Deming flies in. A red and yellow banner welcomes him – held aloft by representatives from Huawei, ZTE and Bank of China, three of China’s most active Chinese firms in Africa. At a subsequent ceremony, Chen signs five loan agreements in the presence of Zambia’s president. As the camera focuses in on the fountain pens, one thing is notable: the Zambians are signing documents written entirely in Chinese.
That brings home one of the most striking aspects of the film: the issue of language.
What’s evident throughout the documentary is how much of a struggle it is for the Chinese to communicate with the Zambians, with both sides forced to use the lingua franca of English.
In one telling example, a Chinese manager is trying to ask an African workman why he isn’t wearing protective gloves. He uses a handheld device, which translates phrases from Chinese into English, before asking in a robotic voice: “Where are the gloves I gave you yesterday?”
Still, China Henan’s Li urges one new arrival to try his best: “To learn English you’ve got to speak and get the words out. You shouldn’t hesitate and worry and think ‘did I get it wrong?’. Once you’ve been corrected it will easily stick in your mind.”
The darker side of the film is the ‘them and us’ mentality often shown by the Chinese towards the Zambians. The viewer sees it in one of the earliest scenes featuring farmer Liu: on one side of the metal window grate, he and his family shout orders; on the other, the Zambian labourers wait for their instructions. The two worlds are clearly delineated. When one local trys to come into the house to speak to Liu’s daughter, Liu shouts: “Tell them to stay outside. Don’t let them come in the house.”
No narrative voice is required here: the comment speaks volumes. In fact later in the film, the resentment of the locals becomes more evident. One of the labourers is not keen on the supervisory attention of Liu’s wife. “She thinks we are like cows,” he tells his fellow workers. Nor are the local staff at China Henan too happy with their Chinese bosses. “They don’t give us respect,” a worker complains. “We are not trusted. They don’t regard us Zambians as equals.”
Even Minister Mutati gets some of this treatment. On a bus journey with officials in Hunan, he is asked about the population of Zambia. He replies 13 million, only to be told the Chinese province he is in has 68 million. “There is no doubt we are a little bigger than them,” an official smirks. And throughout the film, the senior party in the relationship is never in doubt.
Indeed, while there is no narrator to say so, the documentary will leave many Western viewers concluding China is an imperialist power in the making. That’s partly because the images of China suggest as much. The tight editing and camera work depict China as a modern, developed nation of shiny new airports and wide, open highways – the binary opposite of the Zambian scrub. This is misleading: China has plenty of squalor and poverty of its own. It too is a ‘developing’ nation, although watching this film you’d never guess it.
Moreover, the way in which the Chinese treat their Zambian workers might look a lot less racist when you realise that bosses probably manage their fellow citizens in similar way in their factories back at home.
Still, there seems little doubt that China is now in Africa to stay (there are now thought be a million Chinese living on the African continent). And the film’s ending reinforces some of its imperialist subtext. Standing, looking out over his Zambian domains, farmer Liu says: “After I am gone, my children will still be here to carry on my work.”
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