As foreign powers struggle to retool their relationships with Africa, no country has done so with more gusto in recent years than China. The star of the developing world has, since the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000, turned to Africa for much of its energy needs—30 percent by some accounts—and provoked concern over a new scramble for Africa’s resources.
China’s failure to censure trading partners including Sudan, Angola, and Zimbabwe for human rights abuses and corruption has also drawn headlines in the West
. On closer examination, however, Beijing’s relationship with Africa goes well beyond extraction of natural resources and support for dictators. It consists instead of a comprehensive, long-term approach based on years of engagement, as well as China’s own experiences as a developing country. In other words, say many Africans, China “gets it.”
China has invested directly in traditionally neglected sectors, like infrastructure and agriculture. Working through the Export-Import Bank of China and other state-controlled financial institutions, China is estimated to have invested $13.8 billion in Africa from 2005 through 2010. According to The Economist, Beijing has earmarked through the China Africa Development Fund $5 billion for investment in African farming. Increased foreign direct investment in Africa is a major component of China’s “Going Global” strategy, which encourages those in China’s private sector to follow suit and invest heavily in emerging markets, especially those related to energy resources.
Critics of Chinese economic policies in Africa, however, worry the relationship is less “mutually beneficial” than advertised. The import of largely low-quality manufactured goods has created a backlash in some African countries against shoddy products. Many Africans complain that workers on Chinese contracts rarely come from the local population, but are often brought over by China, some settling for good. And working conditions under Chinese management have stoked tensions and even rioting in Zambia and elsewhere.
These challenges are the subject of a compelling new documentary, “When China Met Africa,” by Marc and Nick Francis. The film, set in Zambia, follows the lives of a Chinese commercial farmer, Zambia’s trade minister and a Chinese contractor hired to upgrade Zambia’s longest road as they confront multiple challenges – from communication to relations with local workers.
As multinational companies take note of Africa’s emerging economies – the IMF recently projected economic growth in Africa to reach 5.8 percent in 2012 – the film offers a rare glimpse into the challenges of doing business in Africa. It fairly analyzes both the positive and negative impact that a growing Chinese presence has made across the continent, and gives viewers the opportunity to debate whether or not the U.S. and its Western allies should be worried.
“When China Met Africa” is playing on Monday, March 26th in New York City. Director Nick Francis will be on hand to answer questions following the screening. Africa.com readers can use the code “AFRICA” on our Eventbrite page to receive discounted admission.