When China Met Africa

An exploration of China's presence in Zambia, including suspicion, tensions and possibilities for collaboration.

Still from Marc and Nick Francis's latest observational documentary 'When China Met Africa.

Bleeding, splintering, RGB pixels paint repeated images of handshakes and embraces — filmed off a television screen, or from existing filmed material — until they expand to a short panorama of the China-Africa Summit held in Beijing in 2006. Rapturously applauding, celebratory faces of powerful men, presidents and heads of state are seen, to a bellowing accompaniment: “…We, the leaders of China and Africa have gathered in Beijing to renew our friendship. Both China and Africa are cradles of human civilisation and lands of great promise. Common destiny and common goals have brought us together. China will remain a close friend, reliable partner and good brother to Africa.”

This does not sound like a concise introduction to one of the longest handshakes in the history of business deals, it instead reverberates around the room like matrimonial rhetoric. The summit, presented as a celebration of their fifty years of diplomatic relations, allowed for the further forging of the Sino-Africa bilateral economic and trade agreements. An exhibition of the oft quoted ‘win-win equation’ — a sterilisation of reality that all players are passionate to uphold, despite its eroding disguise.

By avoiding academic abstractions such as: neo-colonialism, geopolitics and paradigmatic shifts in economic power, the success of Marc and Nick Francis’s latest observational documentary ‘When China Met Africa‘, screening at Film Africa in London, unravels by undercutting these heightened contexts. They circumvent the clamor of voices participating in the discussion of China’s co-authorship in Africa, and instead refurbish the story by taking us straight to the ground.

We are plunged three years on from the summit in Zambia and introduced to three of the films protagonists. Separated only by their position in the multi-layered stratums of the Sino-African relationship: Mr Lui, a gaunt, chain smoking, impatient Chinese farmer and entrepreneur; Mr Li, a Chinese project manager for China Henan International Corporation (tasked with overseeing the resurfacing of a 323km road linking Serenje and Mansa); and the jovial Zambian, Trade, Commerce and Industry Minister, Felix Mutati, who always wears a buoyancy, seemingly unencumbered by the significance and gravity of his job. More PR than MP, he wholeheartedly welcomes and facilities any meeting that will propagate investment in Zambia.

The photography is unfiltered, unhampered realism and this recording produces monotonic, muted shades, manufacturing a foreboding listlessness, that soaks into every pixel, as if each scene is veiled. The Francis brothers’ secondary concentration is in the depiction of the ground itself, the soil. Concentrated close up shots peer at the earth united with visceral sounds, as it is brushed, scraped, sliced, sown, ploughed, plumbed and resurfaced. Often low enough to smell, these interluding shots of the voiceless earth, pregnant with resources and opportunities, allows the soil to emerge as the forth protagonist. As it is leached of its monetary value.

There is no commentary, which allows each character to remain in first-person narration. This prompts a series of intimate portrayals and harvests the most insightful, uncensored monologues. While in Mutati’s office during his first introduction to the viewer, he differentiates between West and Eastern business practises, claiming,

When I sit with investors from the Western world they do a PowerPoint presentation about projections, cash-flows, profit, and loss accounts, income statements, balance sheets, risk assessments and all these flamboyant graphs. I’ve never seen those with the Chinese. They probably do them on their own, but when they come here, they just ask me “what are the incentives?” Where is a piece of land, where shall we go and begin work?

At a local market that seems dominated by Chinese chicken farmers, Mr Lui unloads his most unapologetic views on neo liberalism and the free-market that wouldn’t sound peculiar in any financial district wine bar:

Survival of the fittest. The competition is always there, and the weak ones will be weeded out after a while. It’s not a problem. The market is harsh, just like a battlefield. The winner survives.

The entire film has the qualities of a persistent dawn, with a fractured air bringing with it a faint smell of deception, like just gone off milk. It serves to amplify any media report read thereafter, concerning Zambia or any other country in Africa bound in a relationship with the Chinese. Most recently, in August this year, Zambian miners killed a Chinese supervisor and seriously wounded another over a pay dispute at Collum coal mine. With well documented accounts of Chinese-owned mines having increasingly dangerous working conditions, slackness in safety, lack of adequate equipment for workers and lower pay than many other foreign-owned mines. As this film suggests, there is an accumulating suspicion of the Chinese in Africa and the possibility of further manifestations of friction on the ground seems inevitable.

In the concluding shot of the film Mr Lui, stands grandiose and contemplative in his newly acquired land. “After I’m gone, my children will still be here to continue my work. I bought this farm for my children, my three children. In the future, they will hire workers here and continue to work on it.”

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