China Meeting Africa
One of the first things I noticed in the arrivals hall of Lusaka airport is a framed photograph of the Zambian president. It was an image I quickly became familiar with: by law every shop, office and government building is required to display the same picture of the president. Whether changing money, ordering a beer or using a cash machine, Rupiah Banda’s knobbled face and vacant eyes looked down at me.
While Banda is gone – displaced by opposition leader Michael Sata in a surprisingly peaceful election last month – the former president’s corpulent frame features in the opening shots of When China Met Africa, a new documentary about Chinese investment in Zambia by the creator of Black Gold, Nick and Marc Francis.
The film opens with a meeting of 48 African heads of state in Beijing in November 2006. This historic conference cemented the burgeoning relationship between the world’s fastest growing economy and its second largest continent. As President Hu Jintao proudly declares, “China will remain a close friend, reliable partner and good brother of Africa” there in the front row, not far from Robert Mugabe, sits president Banda, a miniature Zambian flag by his side.
The president’s phizog isn’t the only thing that’s ubiquitous in Zambia today. Walking – or, more likely, driving – around its sprawling capital, China’s footprint is visible almost everywhere: there’s the Chinese conference centre (almost every major African city has one), the Chinese-built hospital, the Chinese entrepreneurs selling chickens in the market at worryingly low prices.
In 2009, China invested around $810 million in Zambia. And unlike international aid from the West, Chinese cash often goes straight to work. In the film Zambian Trade Minister Felix Mutati, in his showy Chinese-built government offices in Lusaka with the obligatory snap of the president over his shoulder, explains this difference: “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?”
As well as Mutati, When China Met Africa follows two Chinese businessmen – Misters Li and Liu – who have come to Africa to make their fortune. Liu has gone from office worker in China to farm owner in the dry, dusty plains of central Zambia. Meanwhile, Li is the manager of a huge Chinese-backed project to upgrade the country’s largest road.
The results are grimly predictable: Liu and his family are tight-fisted racists, treating their workers poorly, not paying their wages and dismissing them on a whim. ‘They don’t regard us as equals,’ one Zambian farm labourer remarks, as he eats the miserable staff lunch of maize and cabbage. His compatriot, Mr Li, struggles to complete the road project on time and under budget.
It’s not difficult to understand what China sees in Zambia. It’s the continent’s largest copper producer, strategically located in the centre of southern Africa. And, after undergoing twenty years of IMF-induced shock therapy during the 1980s and 1990s, the country’s natural resources are fully privatised, the power of the unions broken utterly.
China’s presence in Africa has come in for withering criticism of late. Hillary Clinton has warned of a creeping “new colonialism” in Africa from foreign investors and governments interested only in extracting natural resources to enrich themselves. But that’s exactly what the West – and the IMF/World Bank – did for decades. Only now, following the global recession, Western investment in Africa is drying up. Anti-Chinese polemics might be packaged as a concern about working conditions or sustainability but at its root is a seeping Sinophobia, a fear in DC, London and elsewhere that ‘we’ are losing our position of privilege to ‘the yellow peril.’
And yet the new reality of China in Africa is not a pleasant one. The kind of labour and environmental abuses catalogued in When China Met Africa are all too common, especially in poorly regulated mines in the Copperbelt region. But China is also providing investment, jobs and opportunities in Africa, something the West has conspicuously failed to deliver despite half a century of putatively enlightened donor aid. In Zambia, 88 per cent of 18 to 35 year olds have no reliable source of income. In rural areas, four in five depend on subsistence agriculture.
When China Met Africa is lugubrious glimpse into the reality of both modern Africa and modern capitalism. It’s a necessary sight but, like those pictures of the president, not a pretty one.
Towards the end of the film, Mr Liu explains the philosophy behind his chicken business. “I win on good breeding and control of the cost of production. It’s about the survival of the fittest. The competition is always there and the weak ones will be weeded out after a while. It’s not a problem. The market is harsh, just like the battlefield. The winner survives.”