A new TV medical soap opera has just wrapped up filming, intended for broadcast right across sub-Saharan Africa sometime soon. Across 32 heartwarming episodes, Welcome to Milele Village tells the inspirational, tear-jerking story of a benign, tireless army of doctors and nurses, selflessly sacrificing their personal lives to help poor benighted African village-folk far away from home – the aforementioned home being Communist China.
Filmed in Tanzania with an all-star cast of helpless African patients and all-wise, all-knowing, Chinese doctors, the production is a de facto creation of the Chinese State. As such, it stands as a shining example of the now booming so-called ‘Chinese Savior’ genre, in which Africa is presented to viewers as a backward, hopeless basket case in dire need of intervention and help from outside – just so long as the aid in question comes from the East, not the West.
Unlike most new series of Western medical soaps, Welcome to Milele Village premiered not at some fancy LA launch-party, but at the Third Belt and Road Forum for Chinese Language and Literature held in October at Beijing Normal University. Unusually from a Western perspective, the show was written and produced by a chief scriptwriter taken straight from the university itself, Liang Zhenhua, a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature – just imagine if ER had inexplicably been penned by Harold Bloom.
Africa & China: Best Friends Forever
The word ‘Milele’ means ‘forever’ in Swahili, and, according to Beijing Normal University, symbolizes the “beautiful vision”: that, through real-life Sino-African doctor-exchange schemes, “the China Aid Medical Team can guard Africa forever and the friendship between China and Africa can last forever.” But why will said friendship last forever, precisely? Might it be because the Chinese actually intend to trap the continent within the chains of perpetual debt slavery?
The soap was made to commemorate both the 60th anniversary of China’s first ever overseas medical aid expedition, which arrived in Algeria in 1963, and, more significantly, the 10th anniversary of President Xi’s cherished ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, China’s ambitious attempt to recreate a new Silk Road – the ancient trade-route network linking the country with Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, in order to boost their economy and geopolitical leverage.
By facilitating loans to fund massive infrastructure projects in comparatively poor nations like Tanzania, Beijing allows colossal debts that can never realistically be repaid to accumulate. China then ‘generously’ steps in to wipe out or reduce the debts for something in return – access to rare native minerals, for instance, or permission to build overseas naval bases, as in Djibouti.
According to Beijing Normal University, Welcome to Milele Village was specifically intended to condition native African populations to accept this new state of affairs as something soothingly positive, not inherently exploitative: “As a window for mutual understanding between Chinese and African civilizations and a bridge for people-to-people communication between China and Africa, the drama will also become a vivid embodiment of the fruitful results of building the ‘Belt and Road.’”
Tightening Their Belt
You can’t move for Chinese-made medical dramas on TV these days. In 2021, the big-budget show Ebola Fighters premiered on Chinese screens, telling the (half-)true story of how the People’s Liberation Army sent 480 field doctors and medical staff out to West Africa to combat a regional ebola outbreak between 2014-2016.
However, the show studiously omits to mention that various Western nations actually contributed far more to the ebola relief effort, giving the false impression Beijing stopped it single-handedly. Even better, whilst out there, the Chinese visitors also somehow found the spare time to smash a local diamond-smuggling ring, just to endear themselves to the local population even further.
The TV Stars of Star TV
Chinese TV in Africa isn’t all medics and mushrooms. There’s kung-fu, action movies, news, and domestic entertainment programming too, all available for (suspiciously) low, low prices from Star TV, one of the continent’s largest broadcasters, and a convenient Trojan Horse for President Xi to gain access to local living rooms.
In 2002, Chinese media pioneer Pang Xinxing launched his StarTimes satellite TV service in Africa, gaining a foothold in the market. Then, in 2015, President Xi launched his ‘10,000 Villages Project’, donating digital TV infrastructure to African settlements as an act of alleged charity. Then, English-language Chinese State TV news could be pumped into African homes, together with soft-soap propaganda like Ebola Fighters, cunningly mixed in amongst all the stuff viewers actually wanted to watch, like game shows. This tactic, Beijing said, would allow them to “tell the China story well.”
StarTimes is now one of Africa’s largest media giants – yet, even though its presence represents a clear loss of domestic broadcasting sovereignty, it may not easily be removed. Having created physical broadcasting infrastructure in nations like Kenya and Zambia, if African governments ever tried to eject StarTimes as a security risk, China could now effectively switch off TV in these lands at the flick of a switch: real shades of Huawei in the West’s telecoms networks.
Reading From the Same Script
Chinese investment in Africa is not as benign as Communist TV pretends. Exploitation of African workers in Chinese-owned factories and mines is rife. In 2020, one Chinese mine operator openly shot several employees in Zimbabwe after they dared complain about outstanding pay. Evidently, he felt his position as a Chinese national accorded him total impunity: as China is Zimbabwe’s largest foreign investor, it is often thought unwise to offend their ‘benefactors.’ The local Chinese Embassy airily dismissed this as “an isolated incident.” Well, that makes it alright, then.
‘Chinese Savior’ propaganda also works well at home. Demeaning blackface is used on Chinese TV variety shows, whilst Africa is constantly portrayed as a primitive damsel in distress in need of rescue into modernity by a Chinese knight in shining armor.
One academic study into the effect of a constant diet of trashy action films where Chinese Rambo equivalents single-handedly save all of Africa from terrorists, disease, and Westerners, elicited responses from domestic Chinese cinema-goers like “Africa has a lot of poverty”, “Africa is underdeveloped” and “Africa is chaotic with a lot of social unrest”, leading to the inevitable conclusion that “Africans are unable to make decisions [for] themselves.” Well, guess who’s going to have to step in and make all their decisions for them from here on out, then? That’s right, those nice Politburo members from Beijing. And this idea must be true: I saw it on TV.