Documentary and Debate on China in Africa

The Atlantic’s Damien Ma welcomes a new documentary on China’s presence in Africa from brothers Marc and Nick Francis:

China’s expanding footprint in Africa has become almost synonymous with a paradigmatic shift in global power. Yet too often, discussions of this phenomenon is sifted through abstract concepts like geopolitics, nefarious neocolonialist intentions, and resource mercantilism. While important in their own right, these ponderous concepts and terms tend to skirt over the simpler motivations and tangible developments on the ground. There is also a tendency to treat “Africa” as an indistinguishable and amalgamated mass that is having things done to it by “China,” another featureless geopolitical entity armed with cash. But what are the things being done by the Chinese? And how are individual Africans responding? Few mediums are as capable as film in capturing microcosms of reality that reflect broader narratives–it is an unparalleled story-telling device. And the story that is told in When China Met Africa, the latest documentary by Marc and Nick Francis, is one of the most fascinating and unique I’ve seen on this subject.

In many ways, the film is minimalist in scope but ambitious in conveying the humanity in this complex and nuanced Asian-African courtship. That is precisely its strength. Instead of offering sweeping generalizations about “China’s impact on Africa,” the filmmakers deliberately focus on a single country: Zambia. Instead of attempting to construct a grand narrative, the film unfolds in layers and revolves around three simple and interwoven stories: Mr. Liu, a Chinese farmer/entrepreneur, Mr. Li, a Chinese project manager for a Henan-based (central Chinese province) state company, and the Zambian Trade Minister Felix Mutati.

The film’s trailer:

More footage is available on Vimeo, while the entire film can be bought or rented online at

Intelligence², meanwhile, recently hosted a debate entitled ‘Beware of the Dragon: Africa Should Not Look to China‘. Ghanaian economist and writer George Ayittey and Portuguese MEP Ana Maria Gomes argued for the motion, with American University and SOAS professors Deborah Brautigam and Stephen Chan speaking against.

We all know that the Chinese are the neo-colonialists of Africa. They’ve plundered the continent of its natural resources, tossing aside any concern for human rights and doing deals with some of the world’s most unsavoury regimes. The relentless pursuit of growth is China’s only spur.

But is this picture really fair? In Angola, for example, China’s low-interest loans have been tied to a scheme that has ensured that roads, schools and other infrastructure has been built. China has an impressive track record of lifting its own millions out of poverty and can do the same for Africa. And is the West’s record in Africa as glowing as we like to think? After decades of pouring aid into Africa, how much have we actually achieved in terms of reducing poverty, corruption and war? So which way should Africa look for salvation – to the West, to China, or perhaps to its own people?

Ayittey argued that Africa “is littered with the putrid carcasses of failed imported systems” and imploded economic miracles, and that the wave of Chinese involvement threatened more of the same. “The solutions to Africa’s problems,” he insisted, “lie in Africa itself.” Chinese investment is to be welcomed, but is currently implemented using “objectionable and unwholesome” tactics, with opaque deals reinforcing the corruption which costs the continent $148 billion each year (five times the amount of aid it receives). China buys off leaders with trinkets such as stadiums and palaces, while dictating unfair contracts to strip countries’ resources without benefitting their people.

These claims, according to Brautigam, reflect a flawed conventional wisdom. Chinese-built infrastructure, from roads to universities, addresses needs that Western aid does not, and its quality is higher than widely believed. While investments are commonly seen as crude levers to pry open access to natural resources, this view is not supported by their distribution across the continent, she argues. While China is frequently accused of propping up and preying on pariah regimes, it also gravitates toward stable, well-governed countries: South Africa is the highest recipient in Africa, and Australia and Canada receive almost as much investment between them as the entire continent.

The entire debate, including Q&A and audience voting, is available via YouTube:

For more discussion of China in Africa, see the first and second episodes of the recently relaunched China in Africa Podcast, by Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden.


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