When China Met Africa

News | May 04, 2012

Last month in a packed auditorium, the Foreign Policy Association (FPA) screened the new documentary When China Met Africa.

The film is written, directed, and produced by the award-winning brothers Marc and Nick Francis. Their inspiration for the film came from meeting Chinese workers during their previous work in Ethiopia. “That image [of Chinese workers in Africa] sparked our curiosity. We wanted to dig a bit deeper and then start to explore what does that mean,” Nick explained. He added that they wanted “to tell a story about China and the world and [China’s] impact on the world.”

The film focuses on Zambia, not Ethiopia, because of China’s long relationship with that country, dating back to Zambia’s declaration of independence from the United Kingdom in 1964.  Today, China invests heavily in Zambia’s copper mines, which provide vital raw materials for its booming manufacturing sector.  However, the film’s primary focus is on the human dimension: how the Chinese interact with Zambian workers on these projects.

It’s not just the big Chinese companies that are sending their people to Zambia and other African countries. Many Chinese citizens are moving to Africa to seek new opportunities to prosper, typically investing in low-cost businesses. For example, some Chinese immigrants buy land for chicken farms and have steadily expanded their operations.

The story of Mr. Liu, one of three main characters in the film, demonstrates the immediate changes in Africa arising from a growing Chinese presence. Mr. Liu is a prosperous entrepreneur who purchased four chicken farms. He comments that his move to Africa from China has transformed him from an “employee to [an] employer,” a drastic and important change in his life. It was clear he felt a sense of purpose and success as the boss of many local employees. Mr. Liu is one of thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs in Zambia who came in search of  better opportunities.  All of which raises questions about the impact that Chinese immigration will have on the culture of the continent. Will the cultures mix and intermarry? If so, which country and society will the children identify themselves with the most? It is too soon to be able to truly gauge the impact of this new wave of immigration, but clearly Africa will undergo significant economic change as a result.

Along with the immigrants, Chinese contract workers living temporarily in Zambia add to the complexity of the Sino-African relationship. Chinese firms have been contracted to provide a wide range of services throughout the continent. The film observed the interaction between the Zambian government and Chinese professionals working on a road, clearly illustrating the difficulties.

The exchanges between the two parties illustrate mounting tensions. The Chinese employ the Zambians for manual labor and closely supervise their work. In one case where there were 62 Chinese supervisors for 855 Zambian workers the atmosphere of distrust between them was almost palpable. In the film, the Zambians complain about a lack of respect on the part of their Chinese colleagues and argue that they are not treated humanely.  Some of the friction may be the result of inevitable misunderstandings.  “Linguistic-cultural differences are vast,” explained Nick Francis.  Since the contract workers are on relatively short assignments, there often isn’t much effort to provide training that might alleviate some of these tensions. Once their projects are completed, the contract workers return to China.

In the film, Chinese officials describe their country’s relationship with Africa as "win-win" with both sides benefiting from the exchange of money and material. This relationship has also led to the use of Chinese currency, the yuan, within Zambia. As a result of China’s heightened presence, the Chinese media now cover far more news about the region than before. However, partnerships are rarely completely equal and Africans are beginning to question China’s increased involvement. Last year the Zambians elected President Michael Sata, who has taken a tougher stance on Chinese investment projects than his predecessor, Rapiah Banda. Sata has promised to demand project permits, labor rights, limitations on the number of expatriates and improved safety standards. He also may crack down on unregistered Chinese laborers. The harshest critics of the partnership charge that Chinese investments are another form of neocolonialism.

But others see real mutual benefits flowing from the growing Chinese presence. Africa is motivated to develop quickly in an attempt to mimic China’s stellar rise. As of April 2012, China had invested $2.1 billion in business projects and infrastructure, creating over 50,000 jobs.  In 2011, trade between China and Zambia totaled $3.4 billion. Nick Francis maintained that China’s current involvements in Africa are “just the tip of the iceberg;” more projects are certain to come. He added that the West should take note of this trend, and should “renegotiate its relationship with Africa” to avoid becoming irrelevant to its development. That would mean dispensing with old paternalistic assumptions about the continent, he concluded.

When China Met Africa provides revealing insights into the expanding role of Chinese investments in Africa. Westerners can learn a lot from it, while Chinese officials and businessmen should ponder its lesson as well. As a rising global power, China needs to understand how it is perceived in regions where its economic activity is on the rise. In Africa and elsewhere, the challenge will be to ensure that the Chinese presence is understood and valued by both sides.