New Documentary Explores China's Growing Presence in Africa

China's expanding footprint in Africa has become almost synonymous with a paradigmatic shift in global power. Yet too often, discussions of this phenomenon is sifted through abstract concepts like geopolitics, nefarious neocolonialist intentions, and resource mercantilism. While important in their own right, these ponderous concepts and terms tend to skirt over the simpler motivations and tangible developments on the ground. There is also a tendency to treat "Africa" as an indistinguishable and amalgamated mass that is having things done to it by "China," another featureless geopolitical entity armed with cash. But what are the things being done by the Chinese? And how are individual Africans responding? Few mediums are as capable as film in capturing microcosms of reality that reflect broader narratives--it is an unparalleled story-telling device. And the story that is told in When China Met Africa, the latest documentary by Marc and Nick Francis, is one of the most fascinating and unique I've seen on this subject.

In many ways, the film is minimalist in scope but ambitious in conveying the humanity in this complex and nuanced Asian-African courtship. That is precisely its strength. Instead of offering sweeping generalizations about "China's impact on Africa," the filmmakers deliberately focus on a single country: Zambia. Instead of attempting to construct a grand narrative, the film unfolds in layers and revolves around three simple and interwoven stories: Mr. Liu, a Chinese farmer/entrepreneur, Mr. Li, a Chinese project manager for a Henan-based (central Chinese province) state company, and the Zambian Trade Minister Felix Mutati.

Nothing obvious -- like a common plot or cliched coincidence -- binds these very different men. What connects them is that none seems to have fully digested the larger significance of their efforts. It is merely routine -- Mr. Liu just wants to run his farm, Mr. Li wants to shepherd his road project to fruition, and Minister Mutati wants more Chinese investment. But that is how development is done and how relations between two states are sustained. In their small and quotidian ways, the characters are of something much bigger.  

Brash, chain-smoking, and attitude-laden, Liu the entrepreneur has got all the instantly recognizable characteristics of the "every street vendor" who hawks his wares in Beijing. But he is a risk-taker. Having uprooted his family and purchased several plots of farmland, he has tied his family's fate to Zambia. Clearly relishing the freedom that comes with being his own boss, he waxes about capitalist enterprise and free competition -- with an indiscernable Chinese dialect -- at the local chicken market in a monologue that would make Milton Friedman giddy with pride. 

An unapologetically capitalist Chinese farmer planting his roots in Zambia is not the western press' usual image of Chinese machinery constructing stadiums and roads in a nameless African country. That's where Mr. Li the project manager comes in, a man who puts the call of duty above virtually all else. His family in Zambia consists of two cats and his Chinese work crew. He deflects loneliness by consuming himself in the road project. The road, literally and metaphorically, is the path toward development, according to Mr. Li, who seems to earnestly believe it. Infrastructure will integrate markets and bring prosperity to impoverished towns -- that's how China did it, and so can Zambia. The local Zambian official seems to agree with that assessment and invites the "light-skinned brother" to meet President Sata. 

When China Met Africa is one of the few documentaries without voiceover commentary. The directors explained, "It was important that the film had no commentary because we wanted the audience to have the opportunity to interpret this story for themselves. This would be the first time western audiences would see grassroots interaction of China and Africa in this way." Indeed, the characters' own voices effectively and effortlessly carry the film. And the emphasis on individuals and individual agency is a hallmark of the filmmakers, whose other credits include Black Gold and Kurdish Blogger.      

The Francis brothers, whose own educational pedigrees are well suited for this film, also manage to send a political message without politicizing -- no easy feat. Other than the opening scene of President Hu Jintao hosting China's largest Africa summit in 2006, the politics of this sometimes uneasy relationship hardly surface in the film. The exceptions are when Minister Mutati speaks, for example when he compares western companies to the Chinese:

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 we should go and begin to work?
Mutati's fondness for the "Chinese way" is perhaps a result of Zambia being the first African country to establish formal relations with China and the site of Africa's first Chinese special economic zone. But it is also an elliptical political jab at the "West" for a lot of thunder and little rain -- that is, the Westerners show and tell, the Chinese do.

Beneath the "win-win" slogans, however, lies an unarticulated uneasiness. The Chinese way is not universally adored in Zambia, and the country has become publicly skeptical of China's role. Yet even as President Sata's anti-Chinese rhetoric made headlines, he heaped on praise for Mr. Li and his road. But as funding dries up, the road remains unfinished, much like the China-Africa story. It chugs along, driven by the accumulated efforts of the Lis and Lius building, investing, learning and punctuated by unavoidable politics. Will the conclusion to the Chinese story in Africa repeat that of the West's retreat? Will the rising global power commit long enough to a neglected continent to transform it? Mr. Liu the entrepreneur would say yes; he is a Zambian lifer.