What is China up to in Africa?

A new documentary tries to find out.

According to filmmaker Nick Francis, it is the biggest story of our time. The emergence of China as a global economic power is portrayed in the documentary When China met Africa. A preview of the film by the makers of Black Gold, brothers Mark and Nick Francis, was screened at London's Frontline Club last week.

The film is set in Zambia, one of the first African countries to welcome Chinese investment. Zambia is a mineral-rich country with vast expanses of land and only 13 million inhabitants. The Chinese investors in the film chuckle and note that they have a slightly larger population. The Francis brothers' film demonstratse the shift in global power from west to east, and questions the willingness or ability of western governments to understand the role that China is playing in Africa.

The filmmakers show the complex relationship that African countries have with China. They follow a handful of central figures: the Zambian trade minister in his negotiations with and travels to China; a Chinese entrepreneur who sets up a farm in Zambia; and a Chinese construction manager, whose company has won the tender for a major Zambian road project.

We see the Zambian minister marvelling at the speed at which Chinese infrastructure projects progress both in Zambia and in China itself, and the communication difficulties between Chinese managers and their Zambian staff, who seem amused by the fact that their superiors struggle with the basics of the English language.

It soon becomes apparent that China and Africa have one overriding mutual interest: they want development and they want it fast. While the west is dabbling in development projects, drowning in paper mountains and the principles of "good governance", the Chinese hands-on approach is leaving a permanent mark on the continent.

Not that the effects of China's economic relationship to Africa isn't being felt in the political sphere either. In Zambia, the newly elected President Sata abandoned the criticism of Chinese investors which had cost him the previous election. And in South Africa the Dalai Lama was denied an entry visa to attend fellow Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday, due to Chinese pressure.

"It's a win-win situation," the Zambian trade minister pronounces proudly. But are there really no losers? The film shows disgruntled construction workers bemoaning their "unbalanced diet". Yet it fails to investigate the price of the land that the investors are buying up. There is no indication of how and to whom the costs and benefits are parcelled out. Nor is there any investigation of how land rights are settled or the role played in Africa by ancestral rights. These, it seems, are questions for another day.

"When China Met Africa" premieres in the UK on 9 October at Prince Charles Cinema, London W1, with a Q&A with the directors chaired by Jon Snow of Channel 4 News. For information about additional screenings, visit whenchinametafrica.com

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit