For Felix Mutati, Minister for Trade and Commerce in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, the writing is on the wall in his office: Chinese writing, of an obscure regional variety no one can successfully interpret, but it "gives [him] a spirit of imagination of where you are going to lead the country to" nevertheless.
As we accompany Mutati on various trade delegations around Zambia and China he tries to explain how Chinese investment in Zambia is an enterprise driven purely by hope, mutual respect, peace and unity. In doing so, he is lauded for keeping politics out of business. This documentary by brothers Mark and Nick Francis demonstrates the impossibility of that notion. This is especially relevant in light of the 2011 Zambian presidential race in which support for or opposition to for Chinese-African relations has played a big role.
The film starts with a dreamy replay of a recording of President Hu Jintao addressing the China-Africa forum in 2006. His expresses the desire to renew bonds of friendship as the camera pans across benches of African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, Omar al-Bashir and Hosni Mubarak. This is to be the start of a mutually beneficial friendship. Implicit in the deal for access to resources and business opportunities is the understanding that China will not intervene in African politics.
The film properly gets going in Zambia in 2009. The directors let the narrative unfold without commentary. They hope this film will challenge the "yellow peril" hysteria and the charges of "neo-colonialism" that have been levelled at China by a hypocritical West worried about China's expanding global influence.
The juxtaposition of scenes in the film illustrates the grassroots reality of China's investment. Important government meetings where deals are sealed are absurd affairs in which minor etiquette is obsessed over and bottles of water have their own placemats. This is set alongside scenes which show Zambian workers plainly and perceptively stating the inequality and poverty of their position. These in turn are set beside, for instance, former office worker turned substantial landowner Mr Liu, with his arms folded arrogantly, refusing to pay his workforce the full sum up front and docking the wages of a man suffering from diarrhoea for taking a break.
This film shows that inequality is sowing dissent among Zambian workers. But importantly, the film also raises questions about motives behind the criticisms of this situation. The West scrambles to criticise China for turning a blind eye towards worker exploitation and human rights abuses without mentioning its own crimes. Given the subject matter, this is indeed a difficult film. However, the directors deal with the complex perspectives well. This film offers insights into Chinese-African affairs and is worth watching.
When China Met Africa is directed by Mark and Nick Francis and is released on 7 October