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China threat: the exploiter of natural resources

In The Chinese Are Coming, the image of China as the exploiter of natural resources is mainly found in five countries: Angola: oil; Zambia: copper; the Congo: copper; Tanzania: copper; Brazil: iron. Although China is depicted as an exploiter of natural resources in all the above five countries, the visual depiction is approached differently at each stop.

In Angola, the first stop, China seems to be depicted initially as a ‘benefactor’, helping Angolan people to construct concrete buildings, shopping malls and railway lines that contribute to local economics. However, the ‘benefactor’ image is soon washed away by another image: that of an exploiter coming to Africa for natural resources. For example, at the beginning of Episode One, the presenter shows to the camera (viewers) several images of huge oil tankers. He claims this is the driving force behind so many Chinese cargos in the port that also bring so many Chinese workers to the construction sites in Africa. When introducing the topic of Chinese government helping

Africans build railways, the depiction is linked with the oil topic, as the presenter explains that the Chinese government does this just in return for oil:

  • 00:12:18,400 —* The renovation of this railway is directly linked to the oil
  • 00:12:31,940 I saw being shipped out of Luanda harbour.

When the presenter verbally concludes that ‘the renovation of this railway’ is ‘directly linked to the oil’, visually, it uses a relatively long shot to show a long rail line that seems to have no end. By doing so, the presenter seems to suggest to the viewers the relation between a ‘benefactor’ and an ‘exploiter’, that is China is helping Angola for the sake of oil. However, it is not as simple as listing the images and drawing the conclusions. The filmmakers of the documentary also employ a series of visual techniques to frame the construction of this image of China as the exploiter of natural resources in Africa.

In order to better illustrate this point, 1 will explore and analyse in detail how such mixed images of a benefactor and an exploiter are achieved through the employment of the visual language within this documentary by considering a series of shots, camera lens, positions of the presenter and different characters’ facial expressions or body languages within this documentary. Later in the verbal language part, words from the presenter and the interviewees involved will be analysed to see how visual and verbal languages work together to help depict and enhance these mixed images of China on the African continent: a ‘benefactor’ but more an ‘exploiter’.

Throughout the documentary series, the technique of comparison or contrast is employed when depicting images of China as an ‘exploiter’. The visual contrast or comparison can sometimes be a different facial expression or body language between a Chinese and an African worker; a chicken sold by a Chinese outlet compared to a chicken sold in an African market; a Chinese tourist couple on a cruise followed by a picture of an orphaned baby elephant and ivory products. By employing these visual techniques, sharp contrasts are presented, and an effect may be created that impresses on the minds of viewers.

The contrasted depiction starts in Angola at the beginning of the documentary. The presenter leads the viewers to see how Chinese workers are coming to Angola through the contrast between the image of Chinese workers and African workers. In this scene (Scene one), the camera shows several Chinese workers on the sea who are offering the presenter some delicious steamed buns. The facial expressions of these Chinese workers seem to look relaxed and friendly. The presenter, for his part, showing no reluctance or hesitation at all, takes the offered food from these Chinese sailors and happily eats it with delight. If the happy image lingers here, it may suggest that the image of China on mainland Africa is harmonious and welcoming, but this is not the case. Soon, the presenter asks African workers whether they would like to eat this Chinese food, but the camera captures that they are shaking their heads, expressing their reluctance to take the food. Here, there are three signifiers: Chinese workers, a British presenter and African workers. The Chinese are enjoying their food and offering it to others, while the British presenter is cheerfully eating and the Africans are reluctantly accepting the food. Hence, the highlighted images of Chinese, British and African tend to imply the message that the Chinese are giving forcibly, the British receiving neutrally, and the Africans rejecting ungratefully. Such a contrast of images prevails in the following four shots as well.

Scene two: Contrast between the standing position of Chinese workers and the presenter. Still in Episode One, the lens turns toward the presenter who is speaking while standing among many Chinese workers wearing safety helmets. The lens of the camera zooms out which makes the presenter look very small while his surrounding Chinese workers look much bigger in size and number. The position of the presenter and Chinese workers is quite interesting. The presenter is standing in the middle, but hiding behind one short Chinese worker, showing only the upper half of his body. The Chinese workers are standing on both sides of the presenter, with the front row shown standing at full height, which makes the presenter look much smaller by contrast. The whole picture seems very crowded. The image thus successfully creates an impressive visual effect and tends to give an impression of massive numbers of Chinese workers working on the continent of Africa. Furthermore, on closer observation of this shot, we may notice that almost all Chinese workers are looking in the direction of the camera, as if they were waiting to have a group picture taken instead of having their busy working conditions recorded by the camera. They stand in rows more as a background contrasting the presenter who is squeezed into such a small figure speaking his monologue. This contrasted image has thus helped to enhance the information that the presenter has implied later in the documentary that the large number of Chinese construction workers in Africa creates a problem of unemployment among the local workers.

The documentary series does not, however, provide any statistics, either of the actual number of Chinese workers in Angola or of the number of African workers who have lost their jobs because of them. Through the employment of contrasted images, the filmmakers here tend to achieve their purpose of directing or influencing the perspective of viewers.

Another example (Scene three) is the contrast between the hard-working Chinese with their inhumane working/life conditions and Western standards. To demonstrate this contrast, the camera moves to show the other side of the Chinese workers’ image, the diligent, hard-working image. Under the lens, Chinese workers on the construction site seem to be depicted as many relentless ‘bees’ or ‘robots’ without needing a break. This image is repeatedly emphasised by a series of scenes such as: the presenter tries to join the construction work and to learn from Lao Bao, a Chinese team leader, but soon realises that he simply cannot stand the hard work. Here, the unspoken message seems to imply that it is hard work on the building site, and Chinese people are used to working under these conditions. The scene then moves to the interviewing stage, which records how Chinese workers and their families have to tolerate separation for years and can only talk to each other through the internet, which again tends to imply the inhuman and unbearable working environment.

This contrast is, however, dealt with quite subtly by the filmmakers. During the depiction part, no British people are ever interviewed, nor is the filmmaker’s or presenter’s own viewpoint ever mentioned. However, due to the fact that this documentary series is to be shown to the British viewers on BBC Two, such omission together with such cultural contrast seems to have already provided enough answers to the viewers who come from the same social discourse. Thus, the omission here has been skilfully employed with the contrast technique, which may successfully help once again express the producers’ viewpoints and attitudes that the Chinese government seems to treat their workers cruelly, which echoes many cliches about the human rights issues which have received the criticism of the Western mass media.

Scene four: Contrast between Chinese workers’ employment and African workers’ unemployment. In Episode One, the presenter refers to the problem of unemployment in Africa, which could be linked to the large number of Chinese workers on construction sites, doing jobs that had previously been done by African workers:

  • 00:04:31,590 —* There are tens of thousands of Chinese construction workers
  • 00:09:09,840 in Angola. Now, the Chinese construction worker is

legendary. It’s just one of hundreds, probably thousands, of buildings in Angola .... The oil bonanza and the Chinese building projects make Luanda feel like a boom town. But unemployment among the locals is still high.

Verbally, the documentary may not explicitly link the local unemployment with the Chinese workers, though implicitly it does seem quite likely, given the above quoted commentary from the documentary. However, visually, an image is employed in this part which tends to help to bring up this link, if verbally it does not yet. Specifically, when the topic of unemployment is mentioned in this part, the scene suddenly moves to an unknown African person standing beside a door looking seemingly helpless inside the camera lens. Given the lens of the camera is zoomed in, the background of this African person cannot be seen at all apart from traces of a doorframe. Hence, the image itself gives no message on whether this person is actually a worker or not. Nor does it provide any clue about its location, whether he is standing on a factory site or at home. When this close-up shot of this African man is shown before the camera, the presenter is commenting on the mass unemployment problems in Africa. Viewers may be affected by the shot by connecting this sad African face with the unemployment issues that are likely to be related with Chinese workers, explicitly claimed by the presenter. Nevertheless, the impressive image of such a sad face with deep desperation in the eyes of this African man may catch the attention of the viewers, which is more striking. After seeing this sad face, viewers may seldom notice or question the sudden change of the shots and the strange appearance of this African man in the background. Also, such sad depression from this African man’s face and his eyes bearing grief and desperation sharply contrasts with the happy faces of Chinese workers on the construction sites shown in earlier shots. By employing such techniques in shots and choice of camera lens here, the Chinese workers’ image has been visually depicted more as exploiters in Africa, who deprive the local African workers of jobs.

Scene five: Contrast between images of China as a benefactor and an exploiter in railway construction work. In Episode One, the documentary does mention how generous and helpful the Chinese government and the Chinese people are by helping to reconstruct a railway line, enabling the local Africans to boost their businesses. However, when the Africans give unanimous applause and thanks for the maintaining of the railway line undertaken by the Chinese workers in an interview conducted by the presenter, the camera angle moves suddenly from these interviewees to a cardboard box on the train that has the words ‘Made in China’ imprinted. The lens zooms in on this cardboard box that has the words ‘Made in China’ and lingers there for a few minutes. The image of ‘Made in China’ is presented by a close-up shot which makes the letters on the box look very big while the image of a local African woman sitting nearby appears smaller and more distant. This African woman in the background is the same one who has been interviewed by the presenter. She expresses the opinion that they think that they are profiting from this railway line and thus they are thankful to Chinese products bringing such benefits. With this interview still in the viewers’ minds, the lens of the camera moves from the box itself to the letters only by zooming in to make these few words look bigger. Here, the signifier is this cardboard box with ‘Made in China’ on. However, the signifying meaning that the producer or the editor of this documentary seems to tell or imply through employing the close-up shot is that, although Africans such as this African interviewee thank China for the construction work of the railway lines, yet China may have profited more from these African businessmen (women) and have taken a bigger slice of the pie. This is what the box seems to indicate in the background: it is bigger in size than the African businesswoman sitting beside it. Here, the camera angle seems to help in conveying such meaning by fractioning the proportion of the image of the box and image of the woman.

The image is normally characterised by polysemy, which shares with other signs, including linguistic signs, the property of being open to multiple significations. The accompanying captions of photographs, or written materials in a film, often function as anchorage, which will fix the floating chain of the signified. They would guide viewers among the different possible significations of a visual representation (Barthes, 1977). Taking the last shot as the example, the filmmaker leads the viewers to linger on the words ‘Made in China’ on the box (together with the technique of the camera angle), with a possible intention that the Chinese are not just generously helping Africans.

Instead, China is exporting more of their goods that are ‘made in China’ into Africa by building this railway line.

Another example is from The Democratic Republic of Congo (the Congo), the third stop the presenter takes in Africa. In this country, the image of a copper mine is provided: a barren land without any green in it, which seems to create strong visual effect. Following the image of ‘barren’ land, the presenter immediately explains that this landscape is ‘bleak’ due to its hiding ‘a maze of tunnels’ of copper resources that attracts China.

Here, through these visual techniques in different parts of the documentary series, the image of China as an exploiter of natural resources in Africa is thus depicted. The detailed verbal language analysis will be discussed in the following section - Verbal language: textual analysis - where the language will be analysed in depth at rhetoric, sentence and vocabulary levels.

 
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