“When I sit with investors from the Western world, they do a PowerPoint presentation about projections, cash flows… income statements, balance sheets, risk assessment, and all this is flamboyant,” states the Zambian minister of trade, commerce, and industry Felix Mutati, sitting in his office in Lusaka. “I’ve never seen those with the Chinese. They probably do them on their own, but when they come here, they just ask ‘What are the incentives?’ and ‘Where is the piece of land where we should go and begin to work?’”
Mutati is one of three individuals that filmmakers Marc and Nick Francis focus on in their documentary, When China Met Africa—his trip touring Xiamen and other Chinese cities to discuss Zambia’s newfound relationship with investors and local officials becomes a centerpiece of the film. Later in the film, while driving through Xiamen, Mutati marvels at the pace at which Chinese infrastructure in the city has developed since he was last there, explaining that “in the Western world, they are not as quick as China, and at the moment, we are looking for a response that is fast.” It is with this contrast in mind that Zambian workers and officials engage with their Chinese counterparts throughout the film.
China’s involvement in Africa remains controversial, and this controversy is at the core of When China Met Africa. Liu Changming, a Chinese businessman-turned farmer who immigrated to Zambia and who now manages four small farms, is another individual that the brothers Francis focus on. He is shown as dismissive toward his Zambian workers, postponing their pay further and further, stating that he will pay the balance at a later date when business improves. The film begins and ends with this man, who, while being mildly exploitative, is part of a fascinating trend, a migration of regular Chinese citizens who come to Africa to live and work and are active in day-to-day business with the local population.
Indeed, it is with this portrayal of the day-to-day interactions of Chinese and Zambian people in which the film truly shines. It does not describe macroeconomic trends or quote statistics at the viewer, as conventional observers of Chinese investment in Africa are prone to do. Real, complex, at times awkward interactions between average people from two very different experiential and cultural backgrounds are shown throughout the film in a fly-on-the-wall style that imposes no narrative on what occurs beyond what the Zambians and Chinese describe themselves.
It is neither a Western advocation of the merits of globalization, nor is it a Western activist’s condemnation of a new wave of “neo-colonialism.” The perspectives and experiences of the Zambian and Chinese individuals within the film display that the reality of what is occurring, when these two nations meet, is much more complex than any single narrative can describe. This is an inescapable impression that the film conveys with crystal clarity in its observational, but non-value ascribing, style.
Finally, the film also shows the development of Zambia’s system of roads and infrastructure through the eyes of China Henan International’s determined and dedicated project manager, Li Jianguo. Tensions and struggles between the incentives and motivations of the project’s Chinese and Zambian workers are shown in clear relief, while Li Jianguo himself attempts, unsuccessfully, to gain funding from local officials so that he can complete the project. This final scene, like the rest of the film, shows the varied interest groups and perspectives that make China’s investment in African infrastructure—and all of the political and cultural engagement that occurs in the process—impactful and intriguing.
There is another impression that the film conveys that is likewise important in its implications: the Chinese are in Africa to stay, and genuinely believe that Zambia can achieve a high standard of economic development in the future, unlike many Western participants in the past, who have far too often underestimated the Zambian people. Chinese officials in the film regularly state that they want a “long-term relationship” with Zambia, and to be a “reliable partner” to Africa in general. While Western audiences may be inclined to view such statements somewhat cynically—and while Chinese are quite frank in the film, stating in no uncertain terms their short-run need for resources—a cynical point of view is not a full, accurate, or fair picture of what is occurring. It is worth noting that, with tensions growing among nations in the South China Sea, and the U.S. and E.U. welcoming China’s rise with what is at best muddled applause, the Chinese people are in desperate need of long-term “close friends.”
If Chinese immigrants like Liu Changming, who states that he hopes his children will continue to live in Zambia after he is gone, and infrastructure developers like Li Jianguo are any indication, the Chinese are deeply invested in Zambia’s long-run potential, and intend to engage with the Zambian people for a long time to come. When China Met Africa is a poignant, balanced perspective on these events, and it is well worth taking the time to observe and ponder the impressions that this film evokes.