TV review: The Chinese Are Coming

Gary Day worries that the increasing presence of China in Africa might be history repeating itself

February 17, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

The Chinese Are Coming (BBC Two, Tuesday 8 February, 9pm). Couldn't the producers have thought of a better title? It's uncomfortably reminiscent of the term "yellow peril", current at the end of the 19th century, which expressed fears of a Chinese "invasion" of Europe and America. The phrase is thought to have been coined by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1898 and was also the name of G.G. Rupert's book, subtitled The Orient vs. the Occident as Viewed by Modern Statesmen and Ancient Prophets (1911). Sax Rohmer's Dr Fu Manchu, with "a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan", was the supreme embodiment of anxieties about the East, which came to a head in a mass demonstration in Hyde Park in 1904 against the importation of Chinese labourers into South African gold mines at a time when British workers were suffering poverty and unemployment.

The Chinese are in Africa again but this time as employers as well as employees. Our guide to what was happening was Justin Rowlatt. He arrived at the port of Luanda, the capital of Angola, where he "cruised" around the harbour, being "struck" by Chinese sailors. We will have to take his word for that. We only saw them wave at him from their barges. A couple of construction workers did, though, offer to share their "lunch box" with him. "It tastes delicious," said Justin, chewing on what turned out to be steamed bread. The workers also pressed the head of the port to try some but he was less impressed than Justin who, between mouthfuls, managed to tell us that Angola exports a million barrels of oil to China a day.

The Chinese had not come to Africa, like the British once did, to bring civilisation, but to build shopping centres. Justin asked if he could have a job with them. He already had the uniform - hard hat and orange dayglo jacket. From a certain angle, he could have passed for one of the Village People. The foreman explained what was required: punctuality, perseverance and completion of work. Justin got down to it, tightening a nut round a pole and hurting his finger in the process. During lunch the workers take out their laptops and ring home. The conversation with their families revolves around food. "Have you eaten?" "What did you eat?" Here was a clue to why the Chinese are famed for their restaurants.

Those who weren't involved in building the mall were busy repairing the Benguela Railway, which runs from the Angolan port of Lobito to DR Congo, Zambia and beyond. Perhaps when they have finished that, they will get around to replacing the trucks with proper carriages. Justin seemed to enjoy sliding from wall to wall as the train swayed up country but, for him, this was an adventure: for the others it was routine. What made their journey worthwhile was the trade. At each stop they were besieged by villagers eager to buy fish, charcoal, tomatoes and sea salt.

A Chinese businessman explained the success of his country's involvement in the continent. Western companies have to go through too many bureaucratic procedures whereas "we are more flexible". This particular entrepreneur sold motorbikes. Justin couldn't wait to get astride one, but appeared disappointed by the lack of horsepower between his legs. Just as well, really. Wobbling all over the road, he didn't exactly look a natural for a part in Easy Rider. The businessman was all smiles as he outlined the benefits of capitalism. The Chinese economy benefited from building the bikes and the Africans benefited because this cheap form of transport created job opportunities and so raised the standard of living. Justin nodded in total agreement.

He did mention that not all Africans were happy with the Chinese and even went so far as to investigate conditions at a smelting plant in the Congo, but he was refused entry and retired defeated. He seemed happier defending the Chinese contribution to the economy, vigorously pointing out to a Zambian miner who was complaining about pay and conditions that the Chinese had created 6,000 jobs for his country. The man's anger probably had its roots in the explosion at a Chinese factory in Chambishi in 2005 that killed 46 Zambians, but that was one of a number of facts that didn't find their way into the programme. Another was China's support for the government of Sudan, which is accused of mass killings in Darfur.

At the Hyde Park demonstration in 1904, the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution condemning "the greed of capitalists" and protesting at the British government's decision to "grant permission to import into South Africa indentured Chinese labour under conditions of slavery". With many Africans being forced to work 11 hours a day for barely a pittance, it must sometimes seem that all the past century has brought is a change of masters.

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