Documentary explores fascinating power shift
By Jay Stone,
Postmedia News (May 25, 2012)
When China Met Africa — ★★★1/2
Directed by: Marc Francis and Nick Francis
Parental guidance: Coarse language (In English and Chinese with English subtitles)
More information: www.whenchinametafrica.com
There’s a scene in the fascinating documentary When China Met Africa where an entrepreneur named Mr. Liu — a chain-smoking businessman who believes in “survival of the fittest” on the economic battlefield — confronts a group of workers in Zambia. Mr. Liu owns several farms there, and he treats the labourers with a darkly familiar harshness: one man is fired for going to the bathroom for too long.
The confrontation is something larger. Mr. Liu isn’t going to pay full salaries this week, and he doesn’t want to hear any complaints. “How many millions have I spent here?” he asks. One of the labourers turns to another and says, “His property and he refuses.”
It’s a clash of intriguing cultures, a rare dispute among people who usually disguise their discontent under smiles and politeness. The Zambians laugh, but grumble when they’re alone. The Chinese are gracious until they deal with underlings.
And what it all means is up to us to decide. When China Met Africa is a short cinema verite examination of Chinese investment — some may call it neo-colonialism — in Africa. For the West, having been cut out of the equation, it may seem odd, but the sense of a power shift is just part of the subtext of the film.
Co-directors Mark and Nick Francis have added no commentary to the story they tell, which is focused on three men in Zambia: Mr. Liu, the farmer; Mr. Li, the representative of a large road-building company; and Felix Mutati, the Zambian trade minister and liaison with the Chinese.
The story, such as it is, is told in vignettes of their lives. Mr. Liu and his family are micromanagers, happily freed to pursue their own fortunes but frustrated by the work ethic of their labourers. Mr. Li is alone in Zambia, away from his family, but dedicated to the idea that roads are the economic lifelines of a nation. He too is frustrated by his workforce, and he forces truck drivers to take a driving test. “We are not trusted,” one of them says. “They can’t leave you alone.” Meanwhile, his boss is telling him, “You do job is useless:” English is the lingua franca of the country, even though some of the Chinese have trouble speaking it.
There are other crises as well, including a collapse of government funding for finishing the road. But Mr. Liu is building a dynasty in Zambia, a group of farms he plans to leave to his children, and a continued presence seems assured. As Minister Mutati says, “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?’”
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen (25/05/2012)