Last Night's TV - The Chinese Are Coming, BBC2; Blue Bloods, Sky Atlantic

Getting the most out of Africa
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The Independent Culture

There's something winningly small-boyish about Justin Rowlatt, a reporter with a tendency to throw himself headfirst into a story, even at some risk to his dignity. For a year, he turned himself into Ethical Man for Newsnight, challenging himself (and his family) to live as ecologically as possible. And, reporting on America's responses to global warming a couple of years ago, he unforgettably took several gallons of warm pigswill down the back of his neck in the interests of viewer enlightenment. In The Chinese Are Coming, it's clear that the small boy in him is not even close to being tamed yet. He hung out of the side of a moving train, whooping at its size, pulled faces as he set off on a motorcycle ride with a Chinese entrepreneur, did a stint as a day labourer on a Luanda building site and dressed in blue silk Mandarin pyjamas to take part in a t'ai chi class on the beach at Dar es Salaam. Personally, I think the pyjamas were a step too far. And I have a feeling that Mrs Rowlatt might agree with me. There's a fine line between engagement and clowning, and he may have strayed over it there. But elsewhere he made for an engaging guide to a significant and serious story, presenting a model of the foreign correspondent that couldn't be more different to the safari-suited solemnity established by John Pilger and others of his generation.

The story he was covering wasn't entirely new. Sean Langan tackled the issue of Chinese expansion into Africa in his recent film about the Tazara railway (along which Rowlatt also travelled), and Simon Reeve touched on it too in an episode of Tropic of Capricorn. But it's a huge story that still hasn't properly sunk in – the second colonisation of a continent that is still working through the consequences of its first. Chinese trade with Africa, Rowlatt explained, is now worth $100bn a year, the significant element of that statistic being that it has increased tenfold over the last decade and shows no sign of slowing down. The scale of the Chinese appetite – for hard work, for profit and for raw materials – is startling.

Rowlatt began in Angola, visiting a Chinese construction project that appeared to employ exclusively Chinese workers, keeping in contact with their families through Skype and preserving an almost surgical segregation from the community in which they're working. Since they only leave the building site once a month, the bulk of their wages goes straight back to China, siphoning money out of the country almost as efficiently as they siphon off its oil. Things aren't necessarily better when they take up residence, though, as Rowlatt discovered when he visited a Zambian chicken market, where the legendary Chinese work ethic had come as something of a blow to local traders. "This chicken is inflated," said one local trader, sharing his suspicion that Chinese poultry had been artificially plumped.

While much of what you saw on screen had the feel of adventure tourism (micro-lighting over the Zambesi, feeding baby elephants at a game reserve), the developing subtext was more serious, a tale of entrepreneurial energy that could easily turn ruthless. The Chinese desire for ivory has, in part at least, helped fuel a rise in poaching while the Chinese desire for copper and cobalt has done little to improve the working conditions of those who dig it out of the ground. And though the railway lines and roads that the Chinese build may improve a country's infrastructure, they also provide a reliable route along which its riches can drain outward. The ever-present irony in reporting on such exploitation – that we did something not entirely dissimilar a hundred years ago – didn't escape Rowlatt, and there was a strangely awkward moment when he talked to an elderly white couple in Luanshya, bitterly nostalgic for the days when the local ex-pats' club still had a pool and a ballroom, and perhaps a little forgetful about exactly how many members of the "local community" would have been permitted to enjoy such facilities. Twilight for one colonial experience, sunrise for another.

I was curious to see whether Blue Bloods could improve on its frankly risible opening episode last week, but unfortunately the advance DVD for this week's episode arrived with no soundtrack, and the replacement had the same fault. It's possible then that this account of a subway wilding marked a huge step up in quality, bringing to Sky Atlantic's hybrid of family saga and cop show (three generations in blue, and various other family members on the periphery) a realism that was missing in episode one. I'd be very surprised though because there was no early evidence of subtlety or any willingness to rock the boat. Tom Selleck plays the family patriarch and commissioner of police, displaying a gruff rectitude that reminded me of the Lorne Green role in Bonanza. Last week's case concerned a child abduction ("We got another problem.... little girl's a diabetic") and was jaw-droppingly dependent on coincidence for its unravelling. The doll dropped by the abductor – made in China as it happened – helpfully turned out to be a prototype, one of only three on the Eastern seaboard, which effectively narrowed the search. Son number one then waterboarded the baddie in a lavatory, saved the girl without hindrance from New York traffic, and set up a debate about ends and means that would have struck you as a little simplistic in Teletubbies. Watching it with the sound off may well be the best option.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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