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Franke and Loeken, Losers and Winners (film), 2007

Maurizio Marinelli reviews the film for H-Asia.
January 1, 2007

Documentary by Ulrike Franke & Michael Loeken, 2007 (color, 96 mins.) 

Reviewed by Maurizio Marinelli <>

Originally published by H-Asia.

Twenty-first century has produced a significant historical shift.  A move away from the naïve iconography of China as a vast market, and therefore a land of opportunity for temerarious businessmen, the master narrative has been increasingly dominated by images of China as a challenging economic super-power, a dragon hungry for resources, and even an overt threat, ready to overtake the G7 countries.  The Chinese economy has quadrupled from 1978 to 2007 and, according to estimates, will double over the next decade.  China has also become one of the major manufacturing centres in the world, and today consumes a third of the world's supply of iron, steel and coal. From the year 2000, the country has contributed to two fifths of the growth in the world's demand for raw materials: in 2004 China has consumed 30% of extracted petroleum, 30% of produced steel, and 40% of cement. Over the next 20 years China's demands for energy per person could quadruple, overtaking the American rate of consumption. It is within this complex geopolitical and economic scenario that Losers and Winners should be contextualised. This thought provoking documentary is a fascinating visual and textual document of industrial history. It chronicles the final eighteen-months of the Kaiserstuhl coking plant, through the images and human voices of German shutdown managers, who, having worked in this factory for eight years, found themselves working side by side with 400 Chinese workers who have come over to dismantle the plant.

The plant was the world's most modern coking facility. With state-of-the-art technology it was built in 1992 in Dortmund, in the Ruhr Valley, at a total cost of 650 million Euros. It operated at full capacity for 8 years, but in the year 2000 it was sold to the Chinese Yangkuang company. The purchase was perfectly justified by the growing demand for steel, and thus for coke, in China's booming economy. The rationale behind the German decision to shut down, dismantle and ship this massive smelting complex to China for reassembly, was allegedly based on the logic that it was less expensive to buy coke abroad than to produce it in Germany.

The documentary follows the entire dismantling process step by step, and is divided into six chapters: 1) Arrival, 2) Culture Clash; 3) Exemplary Workers; 4) Dismantling; 5) Thinking of Home;6) Accidents; 7) End of an Era?  Each of them sheds light on this microcosm of globalisation's practices, featuring interviews with the German and Chinese workers, confined for different aims within the same space.

The first chapter contains the epitome of the Germans' reaction to the new situation. "It was like ants" reveals a mixture of surprise, incredulity and sadness. When the Chinese arrived in Kaiserstuhl coke factory nobody had informed the workers that a Chinese investor had decided to purchase the plant. As the German engineer Rainer Kruska says:"We didn't see them coming. They just appeared. We came in one morning and
thought: 'What's going on here?' They'd probably come that weekend. We had no idea. And now they were all here. It was like ants. More and more kept coming."

This is the prelude to the second chapter, Culture Clash, which reflects the practical ways in which two cultures encounter, mis communicate and demonstrate various signs of essentialisation and the origins of overt misunderstandings. On the one hand, the Yangkuang's Company managers boast of the "mighty technological modernisation" that was quickly achieved by China, and acknowledge the significant improvements which the acquisition of this plant, with all the original blueprints, will bring: "It will give China a 20-to-30 year boost in oven technology." Part of this success will be guaranteed by the widespread diffusion of the technology which "will become common knowledge in China": this coking plant will be rebuilt as a model plant, then 3 or 4 others will be built so that in the future the coke will be exported from China. The technician in charge of the "China Machinery Construction Workshop (zhongji jianshe)" emphasises how the first Chinese character echoes the compound word for China (zhongguo), associated with the self-perception of being "at the centre of the world," and then he laughs with excitement.

The Germans, on the other hand, find it difficult to communicate with the Chinese workers: they find them in their requests for help, always ready to give evasive answers when they are found "messing around with the electrical wiring," and, more significantly, careless of complying with the necessary safety measures. The German reaction seems to be informed by a strong emotional component:the sadness of the engineers who have worked in the "nicest plant ever" since 1992, and now here they are as main protagonists of the final act. One of them emphasises his despair, due to the involvement both in "the start and & finish," and now his "poor soul is drowning in tears." This dramatic sincerity is  one of the most interesting features of the documentary, and contrasts with the emotional side of the Chinese workers who give voice instead to their dreams of a better life for themselves and their children.

Another interesting feature is the language: the Germans understand that "Nothing works without an interpreter," but the meetings reveal that the hermeneutic obstacles are emblematic of a different mindset, which the language can only partially solve. Using welding torches next to the coal heap without protecting foam, or using ladders which are not consistent with the safety norms, are examples of practices which are not considered dangerous by the Chinese workers. The Germans continue to address these issues until a "solution" is found with the writing and public reading of the guidelines for dismantling. These resonate as being emblematic of "ten commandments" and range from "Embody the dignity of your country" to "Observe rules and regulations" or "Stricter attitude to safety" but in any case, they never indicate exactly how these are to be followed.

The Germans also recognise that the Chinese are very hard working ("work from dawn to dusk") and "really fast."  Rainer epitomises the China's threat syndrome with his words: "We'd better watch out and see what's happening."

There is an apparent contrast between the Chinese workers'
intolerance of German advice (which is interpreted as an affirmation of their superiority), and the Chinese project manager Mo Lishi's outlook. Mo Lishi first praises the Germans' "excellent qualities," which are vaguely identified as their "love for the green spaces" and protection of "every tiny creature," but later on he unmasks a sense of disillusionment towards the Germans who "don't work hard enough" and "have no spirit of sacrifice." The recurrent motif of hardworking Chinese as opposed to the "laowai" (the foreigners), who "only" work for 8 hours per day, is interiorised by the workers and strengthened by the constant presence of Mo Lishi, who seems to be always there, side by side with his men.

The whole industrial space is transmogrified into a Chinese city. The documentary provides valuable insights into the living conditions of the Chinese workers: this isolated space far away from home has become a micro-Chinatown, where the Chinese workers ride bicycles and eat Chinese food.  They watch the highly symbolic first Chinese manned space flight taking off on CCTV4, call home and share individual desires and expectations about the future, once they have returned back to the real China.

The third chapter, Exemplary Workers, begins with project manager's interview. He explains that the metal industry is booming in China, but also warns how the overheated economy will increase the pressure on everybody.  "We are living in a time of reform and change," he says, and emphasises the importance of solidarity and sense of responsibility to achieve a "collective glory" and guarantee that China will "remain unbeatable." His linguistic code echoes the military jargon and the patriotic flavour of the theoretical identification between individual efforts and ultimate concern for the nation. This speech introduces the pictures and interviews of the "exemplary workers" of this group which appear like a troop unit at war.  There are the heroic cook, who embodies the slogan "thrift against waste," and the heroic technician. Both are photographed with their red ribbons. They argue that "it is an honour to be sent to Germany." Their ideal is to prove themselves worthy to the Director and the unit. They also explain how the monthly salary of 4,000 RMB (400 euros-bountiful by Chinese standards) will be paid only upon completion of the project, so that the workers cannot abandon the workplace.

At this point there is a striking change of scene. The fourth chapter, Dismantling, is dominated by the disappearance of the assembled gigantic industrial site, which has been broken down into moveable sections. "Now we can see the buildings all the way across Kaiserstuhl," Rainer says. The viewer's eyes see, through Rainer Kruska's eyes, beyond "The Emperor's chair" (e.g. the literal meaning of Kaiserstuhl). Beyond the plant there are houses, where probably most of the 800 German employees were living. The space formerly occupied by the coking plant looks like a desert and the camera indulges both on the absence of people and the absence of built structures. The plant is gone. Rainer's voice is broken when he points at the dismantled batteries and furnaces. Then he seems to revitalise: what seems to rescue him is the profound sense of scepticism that the Chinese cannot make it: "They cannot manage it alone. They don't have the experience to manage such a big coking plant, rebuilding, restarting it. The Chinese need the knowledge of the people who set it up; they need help." Chinese cooperation with the West has moved from know-how and technology transfer projects, to the creation of joint ventures, to the Chinese acquisition of Western state-of-the art facilities in less than twenty years. Scepticism might be a legitimate reaction but it does not provide a solution. The camera quickly moves on to focus on the Chinese project manager who expresses his dream of owning a Mercedes Benz, the quintessential symbol of German success in the automotive industry and beyond. Mo Lishi wrote a poem about the Mercedes advertising poster hanging on his office wall: for him the car symbolizes "the longing for a nice, new life." Old and new, past and present are recurrent antagonist terms in the Chinese search for modernity, and Mo Lishi's voice embodies the rejection of their possible coexistence. After attaining the collective aim of purchasing the most modern coking plant in the world, his personal dream of driving a beautiful Mercedes "towards the splendour of our own  future" seems more real now. This echoes the logic of "looking towards the future"(xiangqiankan), which today conceals the homophone and homotone pun "xiang qiankan," where the character for 'ahead/future' is replaced by the homophone character meaning 'money.'

Rainer's sadness is the counterpoint which dominates the following scene: he walks through the machine parts that are rotting away and gives voice to his nostalgia: "Our job was our second home." I am part of this plant. I may just be a little cog but I am still part of  it." His sense of attachment unmasks a Western-style version, characterised by an apparent subjective appropriation, of the Leninist/Maoist idea that people are "cogs and screws" in the giant socio-industrial machine that they called revolution. Later, Rainer will supervise the last shift, when former colleagues will say "goodbye" and go separate roads after "giving everything" since the result of their blood pressure tests reveal how high it is due to stress.

On the other side of the fence, in the chapter "Thinking of Home," the Chinese cook sings a song about eternal love and loneliness, giving voice to another kind of nostalgia: homesickness and being apart from the beloved ones since "You are in the East and me in the West." This is the micro-history of migration which hundreds of thousands of Chinese people have experienced in the last thirty years, often following a dream of a better life for themselves or their children back home. The emotions are obscured by the xiangqiankan motif which re-emerges when project manager Mo Lishi visits a car dealer, and wants to try a Mercedes: "a big car large and roomy." But then, on the way back, he listens to revolutionary songs eulogising Chairman Mao in a visit to a rural commune(1958) where everybody is happy and smiling. The contradiction of the two scenes is apparently dealt with by Mo Lishi with his analysis of globalisation issues. He blames Germany for not "trying hard enough" and foresees other countries surpassing Germany one day. This is an important aspect of the documentary: in the eyes of the Chinese director the German people are the losers, since "they are too relaxed, not as hectic as the Chinese," and a developed country like Germany will suffer the consequences in the long run.

The final scenes see the Germans emphasising that it is the first time that a coking plant has been dismantled and moved, and recognising that in China "they have lots of people who need work" while a lot of German people "don't want to do anything like this," don't want to work in a coking plant.

The following discussion about the CAD-CAM system being preferable or not to manual operation sounds like an old and outdated adagio. The project manager's conclusion refers to Chairman Mao's statement that "there are always victims on the revolutionary path" and promotes spirit of sacrifice. This anticipates the thought-provoking discussion among the workers on the pride of being Chinese. One of them argues that it is not necessary to surpass Germany, just reaching its level of development will be enough. Another one affirms that "A strong motherland makes us stronger:" now the Chinese abroad don't need to pretend, trying to pass for Japanese, out of shame, and they can proudly affirm 'Wo shi zhongguoren' (I am Chinese). The high degree of confidence, proportionate to the nation's self-positioning on the global scene, reiterates and reinvents the narrative of self-strengthening which began in the 1860s, through the action-reaction force pairs of saving the nation from the foreign aggression while affirming the essence of Chinese identity. The Chinese people's ability to bear hardship and unpleasantness is recognised as being of supreme value, one "that will make our land stronger and will also strengthen our backs."

The image of the victorious return is epitomised by project manager Mo who praises the collaboration with the "German friends" but ultimately speaks highly of himself, while acknowledging the hard work of the 400 Chinese workers who "can return home victoriously."

The conclusion resonates with the title, but seems to produce a widening dichotomy. The German "shutdown managers" have been progressively demoted to "short-time work" and then to "adjustment" operators. Now they go home (one of them after "a whole life&" -38 and a half years- working in the sector) tense and sad, with no other alternative but retirement. They are the losers: they lost their jobs and there is no other work for them in this society. They also lost a piece of their homeland, and a part of the economic-industrial history of the Ruhr Valley--a former mecca of coal, iron and steel -- is gone forever. The Chinese, who are so confident of being Chinese and so proud of their country, are the winners. The dichotomy is partially mitigated when one of the Chinese workers takes what's due for his hard work and adds: "Money, you are a knife that kills people without bloodshed." But this is a passing thought, since the project manager is already dreaming of his next successful enterprise: dismantling the German airplane factory which produces the Airbus, in order to take that over to China. His statement could sound frightening and even arrogant, but he explains that, at that point, the Germans will be producing spaceships and every family will have a spaceship to fly to the moon. This sci-fi conclusion makes us ponder over the temporalities and spatialities of globalisation unveiled by this emblematic case study.

The coking plant was reassembled like a gigantic jigsaw puzzle in China in 2006, and put back into operation in the town of Jining, in the northeastern province of Shandong. Two identical plants have been constructed in two further locations: "each of which is capable of an annual production capacity of two million tons of coke and is thus making a significant contribution to covering the growing demands for coke in China and throughout the world." Since the plant was sold to China, the price of coke has risen from $30 to a high of $550 per ton. Steel's considerable price increase hit medium sized metal processors both in Germany and anywhere else in the world. Due to the increasing demands for raw materials worldwide, there are considerations in the Ruhr district to renew local production of coke.

The massive "integration" of China into the mechanisms of the international market has responded to the mantra "merging tracks with the international norms." This documentary questions any attempt to provide clear-cut definitions of globalisation such as "an increasing and inevitable global interdependence" (Giddens, 2000), or an "inexorable integration of markets, nation states and technologies to an extent never witnessed before" (Friedman, 2001), or an "objective trend of economic development in the world today, featured by free flow and optimized allocation of capital, technology, information and service in the global context&#8217; (Zha Peixin, 2003).

Losers and Winners highly problematises even David Dollar's (World Bank's head of mission in Beijing) argument that "China has saved globalisation." The documentary offers instead, a complex and thought-provoking juxtaposition of cultures, personal emotions, and national pride, which challenges any simplistic conclusion of globalisation being either "good or bad." The title clearly indicates a precise coordinating conjunction ("and" as opposed to "or"), which links the two words "losers and winners" but at the same time, sets an order since the "loss" precedes the alleged "victory."

The documentary won the following awards: Best International Feature 2007  at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Film Critics Award 2007 at the Chicago International Documentary Festival, Special Jury Award 2007 at It's All True Brazil, Best Film Award 2007 at One World Human Rights Festival in Prague, Golden REMI Award 2007 at the WorldFest Independent Film Festival in Houston, and 2007 Silverdocs Documentary Festival.

This is a historical document of globalisation practices, processes and effects, which is highly recommended in classes regarding East-West encounters, cross-cultural understanding, Chinese management and culture, or more generally in any class on contemporary China, if properly contextualised and presented.

Maurizio Marinelli
Centre for East Asian Studies
University of Bristol