I recently attended a screening of "When China Met Africa" at the London School of Economics. It is a documentary I had seen before, but having just completed work on Africa Research Institute's latest Briefing Note "Between extremes: China and Africa" I was keen to view it again.
The documentary's simplicity is its greatest asset. Set in Zambia, the three protagonists each provide crucial insights into the dynamism and nuances of contemporary China-Africa relations. Mr Liu is an office worker turned entrepreneur and farmer; Mr Li, a project manager for China Henan International Corporation tasked with resurfacing 323 kilometres of road; and Felix Mutati, was Zambia's minister of trade, commerce and industry when the film was shot. These three individuals do not know one another, nor do their paths cross. But as their stories are juxtaposed they directly challenge the stereotyping to which China-Africa relations are so often reduced – China as Africa's metaphorical "fairy godmother" or its neo-colonial exploiter.
Mr Liu's decision to uproot his family and purchase several plots of land in Zambia to cultivate crops and livestock for the local market proved an astute move. His business is thriving and he relishes working for himself. An ardent champion of the free market, Mr Liu talks with conviction about his belief in enterprise, competition and hard graft.
In many respects, Mr Liu represents the vanguard of the Chinese presence in Africa. Contract workers employed by state-owned and large private corporations seldom encounter Africans outside the workplace. For the vast majority of Africans who do come into regular contact with Chinese migrants, interaction is with people like Mr Liu – small and medium-scale traders and business owners who have arrived on the continent without any sort of sponsorship or support from Beijing. In depicting this reality, the film exposes a fascinating paradox emerges.
Mr Liu provides much needed employment locally – but his uncompromising quest for productivity and profit creates a relationship with his workers that makes for uncomfortable viewing and is redolent of the colonial era in Zambia.
The increase in economic migration from China to Africa has become an emotive subject. Estimates of the number of Chinese living in Africa range from 500,000 to 1 million. Competition from Chinese traders and businesses has caused discontent in local markets. In Uganda, retailers closed their shops in protest at being undercut by competitors and cheap goods from China. African authorities have responded to popular demands for greater regulation. In Malawi, foreign traders are restricted to establishing businesses in the four main cities. Poor quality goods and strict no return policies have provoked widespread demands for better regulation of Chinese imports. Concerns about reputational damage have prompted officials in Beijing to address quality control to mitigate negative effects on wider diplomatic and economic ties.
Mr Li's employer, the China Henan International Corporation, a provincial parastatal, exemplifies the "China" with which African states increasingly engage. Globalisation has entailed a diminution of central control over Chinese concerns operating overseas. Provincial administrations and private companies attracted by the margins attainable in Africa have forged their own presence in resource extraction, infrastructure and consumer markets – accounting for a quarter of Chinese investment in the continent as early as 2007. Mr Li believes wholeheartedly that the job he is doing will bring prosperity to Zambia by facilitating trade and economic growth. This, he argues, was the path followed by China.
The inclusion of Felix Mutati in the documentary is important because it highlights the active role Africans play in encouraging Chinese trade and investment. However, Mr Mutati's conduct during a trip to China provokes unease. In his eagerness to secure Chinese investment, in any shape or form, the need for appropriate negotiation of terms or conditions is glossed over by the Zambian minister. It is as if any investment will do, on almost any terms. The bargaining position of African governments is often not maximised. Although coherent national and regional development strategies are becoming more commonplace in Africa, negotiations with foreign investors are often conducted with too little reference to these strategies. The onus is on African governments to ensure the long-term effectiveness of foreign investment by channelling resources into priority sectors, and to secure terms which enhance skills and technology transfer. This imperative seemed to be far from Mr Mutati's mind as he sought to entice Chinese investors.
The narratives in "When China Met Africa" do not represent a comprehensive depiction of China's multifaceted engagement with Africa – and the makers of the film make no such grand claim. Their achievement is to underscore, with subtlety and sensitivity, that there are many Chinas in Africa – and that continually evolving China-Africa relations are shaped and altered by the likes of Mr Liu, Mr Li and Felix Mutati.
Many more individual stories could usefully be told. It would be fascinating, for example, to learn more about the dilemmas the Beijing government faces in maintaining its official stance of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations as economic relations deepen; or about the experiences of African entrepreneurs who have been driven out of business by the competitive pressure from cheap Chinese imports; or about African businesses sourcing products from China which are thriving. A series of sequels would be welcome.
Jonathan Bhalla is Research Manager of the Africa Research Institute.