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On ‘The Road’ through modern China

  • The Road panel at Wide Angles

At the Wide Angles panel for The Road, L to R, Isabel Hilton, Kathryn Rand, Jinny Yan, Zanbo Zhang, and translator Phoebe Hu

March 2016

The British Council kicked off our new Wide Angles: Docs and Debates series in partnership with Picturehouse Central on March 9 with a screening of Zanbo Zhang’s The Road followed by a lively discussion about the impact of rapid industrial growth in modern China. Wendy Mitchell reports on the discussion.

Zhang’s The Road is notably the first Chinese feature documentary to screen at the influential International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). British Council and Picturehouse Central were proud to present the UK premiere of the film to kick off our new documentary screening strand designed to showcase outstanding documentaries from around the world that inspire conversation about global issues.

The Road is a compelling film that offers a unique insight into how China’s swift path to modernisation is impacting ordinary citizens in untold ways. With the Chinese government’s $586 billion infrastructure investment plans including the rapid construction of a super-highway in rural Hunan province comes this illuminating film – shot over four years – which looks at the personal impact on villagers, workers and local authorities.

The post-screening panel’s moderator, Isabel Hilton, editor of Chinadialogue, called the film “an extraordinary picture of when high-level policy hits the ground.”

Zhang, whose comments were translated into English by Phoebe Hu, said he was thrilled to be showing the film to a cinema audience in the UK, because in China the film is not allowed to be shown publically, although he has shown it privately twice.

He said the inspiration for The Road was a friend of his who worked as a labourer on similar infrastructure projects, “it was the reason I got the idea and the access to make this kind of film,” the director said.

The Road shows remarkably frank scenes of villagers’ needs being ignored, laborers being mistreated or injured on the job, safety concerns being overlooked after bribes, and other scenes that are very rare to be seen coming out of China.

The director said it was working with the subjects for four years that helped earn their trust. “Why would they trust me? I have also wondered that. I think it’s related to my own personality, I treat the workers as a friend. At the end of the four years…the end they don’t see the camera anymore, they just see a friend.”

Zhang said when he started the project he didn’t stop to ask who his audience was. “I just think we shouldn’t always live in a bubble, there should be someone to tell the truth,” he added.

Hilton asked Zhang if the anti-corruption drive led by Xi Jinping since late 2012 had impacted the kinds of people Zhang portrayed in his film. “If you ask me, it is still happening, but less than before because of what has happened [with the anti-corruption campaign]. But it’s not totally disappearing.”

Looking at China's rapid growth

Panellist Jinny Yan, Chief China Economist at ICBC Standard Bank, looked at the economic conditions that lead to China’s huge investment in infrastructure and construction.

“To avoid the impact of the global financial crisis… China was at a crossroads, whether we face high levels of unemployment or we try to boost the economy by quickly building and investing. China obviously chose the latter,” she explained. “These migrant workers [building the highway] might have previously been working in factories making goods.” Banks were told to lend for any of these massive building projects, she added, even if some of the roads are now empty.

Yan added that the constant emphasis on GDP growth might be the wrong target. “Should that figure come with a quality assurance as well – to assess the quality of growth -- nobody is asking that question…The local governments are assessed on how much GDP they produce, not how good the quality is.”

The Chinese government still prioritises growth to ensure social stability, and avoid mass layoffs, she added. But there are signs of change – “This is not the end of the old growth model for China.  But If you start to track the new economy in china – companies WeChat, digital technology, innovation, or even the film industry, this is the kind of new China that is growing double digits. Hopefully within time the new economy will start to take dominance.”

Another expert panellist, Kathryn Rand, Senior Project Manager at the Great Britain China Centre, said, “One of the things that’s quite striking in the film is that there is no mention ever of a legal system in China. Throughout the film people talk about dealing with grievances privately…. It would be much better if there is a more effective channel in dealing with grievances.”

Yan pointed to one injured worker’s wife in the film, who was trying to get compensation but bemoaned that they had “no money, no power.” Yan said, “In the eyes of these people the legal system may exist, but it’s not enforced.”

Rand also spoke of the civil society developing in China in the past few decades. “We’re seeing this quite incredible diversifying of society, a pluralistic society naturally developing.”

She said there had been troubling crackdown “on labour NGOs down in the South of China,” and she said there was some retreat from past progress for “organisations as varied as those working on LGBT rights or working on environmental protection…a lot of that progress that was made in terms of developing good relationships with local government partners…that’s now changing. That’s obviously quite a worrying development.”

Zhang added that he had also written a book about a similar topic, which had been published in China, but he had hoped from more local impact from both works. “Nothing really happened to any of the workers, that’s the sad part, because for me I want to make some impact for society. That’s the purpose  of this documentary to make an impact.”

Wide Angles: British Council Doc Debates is a series of monthly screenings of new, compelling documentaries taking place at Picturehouse Central, the new state-of-the-art flagship venue in Piccadilly Circus. Each screening will each be followed by live debates featuring expert commentators and audience engagement. Mark your diaries, the next screening will take place on April 13.