The new colonialists
By Alec Russell
Published: November 17 2007 02:00 | Last updated: November 17 2007 02:00
Chinese expatriates and loans are rebuilding war-ravaged Angola in return for oil. Are they the heirs to Europe’s imperialists or something more benign? By Alec Russell.
The Alcatel Shanghai Bell crowd were settling in for a long haul. It was the eve of China’s National Day, they were thousands of miles from home and in a private room at Shanghai-Baia, Luanda’s finest Chinese restaurant, they were looking forward to a night of singing, drinking and reminiscing. Outside the bay window, the rays of the setting sun slanted across the glassy surface of the lagoon around which Angola’s battered capital nestles, spreading a sympathetic glow over the pastels of the Portuguese colonial-era buildings.
In the restaurant, with its garish fittings, all eyes were fixed on a giant karaoke screen. A sinuous young woman in a silk dress dipped her head in and out of the surf in what at first glance could have been a more elegant variation on a Beach Boys video. It was, I gathered, a cult Chinese love song. Cheers broke out as one of the guests strode to the microphone and started crooning.
”We are here to celebrate,” said Simon Zha, the dapper head of the Chinese telecommunications company’s office in Luanda. ”And to think of China…”
He introduced me to his seven (male) colleagues and his young wife. She must have been in her twenties, as were most of the men. If the empty Heineken cans surrounding three of them were anything to go by, the celebrations had been going strong for quite a while. Then it was time for the ”Jackie Chan” song. The three drinkers rose to their feet, linked arms, dropped their heads and embarked on a haunting melody as the all-action movie star rampaged across the screen behind them. Mr Zha and his wife stopped chatting and a faraway look came into their eyes.
As I left them to their nostalgia an irresistible comparison came to mind. It was with the countless melancholic encounters I have had over the years with western expatriates far from home. It could have been a Burns Night with homesick Scotsmen in Bucharest, Christmas with British troops in Bosnia, or a Thanksgiving with Americans in Johannesburg. Instead I had been granted an early sighting of what will become an everyday phenomenon across Africa – Chinese expats at play.
In the suite next door, a trio from a small Chinese construction company who had invited me to join them for dinner were also growing maudlin. Endless plates of spicy Sichuan food had been whisked in and out by the endearingly incompetent young Chinese waitresses. (”They are country girls who have just arrived,” explained my hostess, a jolly businesswoman who has spent more than a decade in Africa. ”They don’t know anything.”)
There had been far too many rounds of ganbei (ritual toasting in which honour demands the liquor be downed in a single draught) and accompanying appeals for co-operation between east and west. Ding Xuebao, a wispy-haired engineer with a passionate belief in the rectitude of the Chinese government, declared that it was time for the Beatles. He leafed intently through the well-thumbed karaoke book and soon his beautiful tenor was ringing out. ”Hey Jude, don’t make it bad,” he sang, and it wasn’t. Then came ”Yesterday”, and other classics, first in English, then in Mandarin, then in English again. He didn’t need to read the lyrics. ”We come here every weekend,” said my hostess as she prepared to launch into her own favourites. ”We come to escape.” It was a heartfelt remark and one that helped to prise open – or at least to soften – the stark western caricature of Chinese businesspeople pouring into Africa.
In recent years, as China has dramatically stepped up its engagement with Africa, a popular stereotype of the typical Chinese expatriate in the continent has taken hold in the west. This goes roughly as follows: they arrive in virtual secrecy to work for giant state Chinese companies as foot-soldiers in Beijing’s new African strategy; they work incredibly hard for next to nothing; they deprive locals of jobs, and they have little or no interaction with their host countries.
This image is not without foundation. In the past decade or so, analysts estimate that as many as several hundred thousand Chinese may have come to Africa. Many have set to work with great zeal rebuilding infrastructure shattered in the wars that have plagued post-colonial Africa, the projects linked to cheap lines of credit proffered by Beijing. In return China has gained preferential access to the continent’s resources. Yet this extraordinary new endeavour – the most profound change in Africa since the end of the cold war – has been carried out largely silently, fuelling accusations that China turns a blind eye to the abuses of host governments, and also stirring resentment among locals. Nowhere are the peculiarities of this relationship more apparent than in Angola.
On a recent Saturday, my first full day in Angola in a decade, I went on a drive around the outskirts of the capital. A few years ago this would have been impossible. By the end of Angola’s 27-year on-off civil war in 2002, its roads were among the most impassable in Africa. For many years during the war Luanda operated as a city-state. It housed the government, controlled the crucial offshore oil fields and was home to several million refugees who fled the war-ravaged interior for a city designed to hold barely half a million.
Now, however, stretches of new tarmac bear witness to the work of Chinese construction firms. Within a few hours I had just about circumnavigated the city and seen Chinese foremen directing the rebuilding of a giant hospital, a hotel and endless other projects; engineers overseeing the construction of a new university (which has all the hallmarks of a future white elephant); and a gang of Chinese labourers disappearing into the city’s sewers.
But the most memorable aspect of the trip was not what I could see of the Chinese, but what I couldn’t. The road south is lined on both sides by giant Chinese compounds housing the employees of construction companies. Surrounded by high walls and barbed wire fences, they are sealed off from their hosts. Possibly the most impressive fortifications ring the compound of the China International Fund, a Hong Kong-based construction company that has a particularly close relationship with the Angolan government. Its yellow and red front wall is 11ft high, has eight rows of barbed wire and stretches about half a mile along the highway.
”When they first came they brought their labourers and all their own equipment. Then the Angolan people started getting annoyed,” said my guide, Andre, as we sped past the encampment of the Guangxi Hydroelectric Construction Bureau. Andre, an Angolan businessman, did not want to give his full name. So sensitive are the ties between Luanda and Beijing that in Angola’s authoritarian society people are wary of speaking their mind about China. ”They work as a unit. They help one another,” Andre added with a tinge of envy. ”If one lacks equipment others help him to get started. But it is different for Angolans.”
The Chinese and Angolan authorities have not exactly helped to smooth the path of the arrivals, still less to explain the nature of the relationship. In spite of moves towards greater transparency by the technocrats who run Angola’s finances, the management of much of the money coming in from China remains opaque. A credit line worth at least $2.9bn from the China International Fund is controlled by a shadowy special cabinet, reporting directly to the autocratic president Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has led Angola for the last 28 years. All this fuels the sense of mystery or confusao, an Angolan concept meaning utter confusion, which commentators love to invoke when analysing the relationship between China and Angola.
In such a climate wild rumours abound. Earlier this year, foreign businessmen seized on a story in the local press concerning plans to build a town in Angola’s agricultural heartland for immigrant Chinese farmers. Aguinaldo Jaime, a senior cabinet minister, appeared genuinely startled when I put the idea to him. But it chimed with remarks from Li Ruogu, the head of China’s Export-Import Bank a month ago in the city of Chongqing. He was quoted by People’s Daily as pledging to help finance the emigration of rural labourers to Africa. Since then the story has gone cold. I gave up trying to see an official at the Chinese embassy after three days of fruitless waits. And so the rumours flourish.
Amid the confusao, however, this much is clear: with the largest oil revenues in sub-Saharan Africa aside from Nigeria – worth $10.6bn last year – Angola has proved an alluring destination for resource-hungry China. Western donors have kept their distance from Angola since the end of the civil war, mainly due to concerns about the government’s notorious lack of transparency. Beijing, which is also close to the despotic regimes in Sudan and Zimbabwe, has had no such scruples. Angola was last year the biggest exporter of oil to China. It is also the beneficiary of oil-backed loans worth at least $7bn, according to official figures, and an influx of Chinese construction companies that might lead a visitor to conclude the Chinese have annexed the country.
And yet there is another side to the Chinese engagement. It is easy enough to nurture the image of a shadowy Chinese cadre quietly taking over, but anyone who spends time with Yi Bing, a businesswoman who has just set up an acupuncture clinic in central Luanda, would soon realise that is not the whole story. She is one of hundreds or even thousands of Chinese twenty- and thirty-somethings recently arrived in Luanda to manage offices, set up businesses, make money and even, in an echo of some of the more idealistic 19th century European colonists, to have an adventure and ”do good”. It is hard to imagine anyone further removed from the eyes-down Chinese worker-bee of legend than Mrs Yi.
Mrs Yi was being treated by one of her three Chinese specialist doctors when we arrived at her clinic, so we sat in the waiting room, revelling in its serenity after the mania of Luanda’s streets. The furniture and fittings were all new and stylish. They had been shipped from China, as had the marble for the floor. On the wall facing the entrance was a flat-screen plasma television showing a popular Chinese chat-show.
Two Chinese engineers in blue overalls strode past, muttering in Mandarin to each other, bound for an appointment in a back surgery. Then Mrs Yi skipped in and perched on a slender rattan chair. She was wearing a tight-waisted beige linen smock and had a dazzling smile and a fund of stories about doing business in Angola. In many ways she is the perfect advertisement for China in Africa, a successful businesswoman running her own show, although she soon made clear that life as a Chinese expatriate in Africa has its downside.
”Life is very simple here, not like in China,” she said as she gave a quick tour of her clinic. ”I’m here just for business, not for the life. Every day we come here early, open at eight o’clock and stay until half-past eight. Then we go home, go to sleep and then come back here again. And we work on Saturdays, not like you European people who like to relax at weekends. It is different from China. In China we can work very hard and go out, but we don’t get the money.”
So what did her parents and friends say about her going to Africa? ”They just didn’t understand,” she said. ”All my friends wanted to go to America or Canada or Europe. They couldn’t comprehend why I wanted to go to Angola or what I was going to do there. But now they know that Africa is not too bad. Everyone reads about it on the internet. My husband and I had a house and a car in Beijing, but you see we wanted to change our life.”
Her husband was away in Nigeria pursuing another business venture. In his absence she was in charge, both of the clinic and their second business, a window factory on the city’s outskirts. To have a woman running a business is a strange concept for patriarchal Angola but utterly natural for her Chinese employees. Two more doctors are on the way from China and she also has a Chinese cook. They are on two-year contracts. The option she has of taking the recently started weekly direct flight to Beijing from Luanda on China Southern Airlines is not open to them because of the cost. But while ”they miss their families in China”, she says, ”they speak to them on Skype so they don’t feel cut off.”
Mrs Yi is a more hardened expat than many. This is, as it were, her second posting. She and her husband spent two years in Nigeria before moving to Angola two years ago. But after a few days it became clear that the couple are by no means unique. There is a buzzing network of young Chinese in Luanda with a similar outlook.
Neal Zhou and Wu Jiao are clearly keen to experience more of Luanda than just their office. They have come to run the Angolan headquarters of Sinomach, a giant project design company. It is Sinomach’s first African office and was packed with young Chinese on the day I visited. To feel at home they had just had their table tennis table shipped over from China. They bemoaned the difficulties of working in a Portuguese-speaking country, the ”lower standards” of Angolan building regulations and the costs of working in Angola. Luanda is one of the most expensive cities in the world. But they brim with excitement about the opportunities, both professional and personal. ”The market here is huge,” Mr Zhou says. He is also hoping to visit neighbouring South Africa.
Sophie Xie, a bubbly twenty-something, has the same outward-looking frame of mind. She has been in Luanda for three months and is hoping to persuade her boyfriend, whom she met at university in Chongqing, south-west China, to join her after they marry next year. She yearns for the fun she had with her student friends at home, but has no doubt she was right to take up her post as a receptionist-cum-translator – she has learned reasonable Portuguese – cum-accounts manager with CGS International, a construction company. How will she stay? At least three years, she says, maybe more.
”It was not a difficult decision to come here. Because I am a girl I want to go shopping. I miss the shops and there is no cinema. We can have a party here but a party in China is different. There are many forms of entertainment at night in China but here we are afraid to go out alone. But there is another side. When you get out of university in China you earn very little but here I earn more. So I can go back and enjoy a higher standard of life. Many people come here for this reason.”
What is striking about these young people is their lack of cynicism (or perhaps their naivety) about their host country. In private they bemoan the lack of infrastructure and the bureaucracy. The language barrier is also frustrating: few Chinese speak Portuguese. ”When we go out and something happens, maybe with the police, we can’t explain ourselves,” says Ms Xie. ”And also, not being able to communicate with our workers causes problems.” But they are great enthusiasts about Angola’s future and their own role in its development. When I broached the great taboo – colonialism – as President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa did last year when he warned of the risks of China developing a colonial relationship with Africa, most Chinese I met responded with a mixture of disbelief, hurt and surprise.
In their eyes, they are a new generation on a new frontier. While they are there to do business, many seem to see themselves more as the equivalent of John F. Kennedy’s first crop of Peace Corps volunteers than as colonialists. My wispy-haired Beatles-singing acquaintance, Mr Ding, made this point with particular force when we met one evening in his boss’s home for dinner. As the ganbeis started to resound around the table he launched into a homily about China’s role in Angola.
”If we try our best and work hard, the future is beautiful. I came here to build a new society. The people here need houses. Many need houses. I am making money but we do not come here just for money. Thirty years ago China was like Angola; it was not good but now it is more beautiful.”
It is easy to see why the Chinese diaspora has been controversial in parts of Africa. They do by and large keep themselves to themselves. In neighbouring Zambia, Chinese overseers have gained a reputation for racism. The Chinese presence even became an issue in the presidential election campaign last year. My photographer and I gained a momentary impression of what it can be like for African underlings when we turned up unexpectedly at the site headquarters of a project to rebuild one of Luanda’s markets. The Chinese overseer was asleep in a prefab office. When the Angolan guard knocked gingerly on his door to alert him to our arrival, he received an earful of what sounded like ill-tempered curses and cringed as his bleary-eyed boss, a contractor from Jiangsu province, flung open his door. Yet to be fair, they later laughed and joked together.
Angolans had to put pressure on the government in the early days of the relationship to make Chinese companies employ a majority of locals. Every now and then the state-backed newspapers complain about the standard of Chinese workmanship – a popular refrain across Africa. Yet Angolans welcome the rebuilding after the long years of war, and they respect the Chinese for their hard work and for their unobtrusive style. They are seen as a welcome contrast with the Portuguese, many of whom even now swan around as they did in the old days when they had a reputation as some of the most mean-spirited colonists in Africa.
On my last day in Luanda I ventured into Boa Vista, a slum perched on a rubbish dump overlooking the port. Joao Domingos, a 48-year-old unemployed mechanic with a foot wrapped in a dirty red bandage, has good reason to be cynical about the government and its new best friends. Their partnership and the Chinese loans have not altered his wretched circumstances. Yet he was remarkably appreciative of the Chinese. ”They cannot be compared to the Portuguese,” he said. ”They don’t look down on us. My only issue with them is that they pay us a bit lower.”
A few hours later I had a rare opportunity to question a senior Angolan official about China. Trained in London, and a former finance minister and central bank governor, Aguinaldo Jaime is the minister in charge of economic policy. He has a fine grasp of the finances of his country. Unsurprisingly, he was rather vague when asked for specifics about the number of Chinese in the country and the workings of loan agreements with Beijing. But one point he made that rang very true was on the difference between western and Chinese expatriates.
”One of the problems that we developing countries have with expatriate workers from other nations is that you have to provide them with round tickets every year, and put them in a four-star hotel where they will have CNN, BBC and Sky News. But the Chinese will not care about that. They simply concentrate on what they are supposed to do. Their concern is to get the job done and this is why they are very fast. Take for example the stadiums for the Afro Basket [Africa’s basketball championship]. They were built by a Chinese company in record time* ”
I interrupted him because he had inadvertently reminded me of an encounter that more than any other had opened my eyes to the thinking of the Chinese in Angola. Song Jing, from China National Electronics Import and Export, was clearly in need of a good night’s sleep when I met him. The 27-year-old engineer, sporting a US Army combat jacket and Coca-Cola baseball cap, was in charge of building an Olympic-standard basketball stadium in the central town of Huambo. He had just finished it, 24 hours before his deadline. Mr Song grinned when I asked his opinion of Angola, before listing all the difficulties that had impeded his project – the poor roads, the rain, the bureaucracy and the language barrier.
And yet he was also bubbling with pride at having shipped all the materials from China and assembled them in time for the tournament. ”My workers don’t have a chance to go out. They just stay here. They have no energy to think about other things; they are too tired. But it’s been a very good experience for me. I don’t like working in an office. It’s boring. I am very glad to overcome these challenges. I will never forget this experience when I am old.”
And so I left, imagining him 50 years from now, a white-haired old man back home in Jiangsu Province, telling his grandchildren about his time in the vanguard of the great Chinese adventure in Africa – just as ageing colonial veterans in leafy British villages still reminisce about their years under the African sun.
Alec Russell is the FT’s Johannesburg bureau chief.
Chinese puzzle – How many expatriates are working in Angola?
Estimates of the most basic statistics relating to China’s involvement in Angola, including even the number of Chinese expatriates, vary by a factor of 20. A Chinese diplomat told a western counterpart they had issued work permits for only 5,000 Chinese in Angola. That seems laughably low given than Chinese workers are to be found all over the country, building railways, roads, bridges, hospitals and schools.
One senior western diplomat suggested there could be more than 100,000. Then he threw up his hands as if to say: ”Who knows?”
The same ambiguity applies across sub-Saharan Africa. Lucy Corkin, a Mandarin and Portuguese speaker from the Centre for Chinese Studies at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, said the ”band width” of figures for the numbers of Chinese in Africa was enormous. In a recent report for the Rockefeller Foundation she concluded that Angola would soon have the largest Chinese expatriate community in Africa but added that figures were ”inconclusive”.
Citing ”credible reports” she estimated that between 20,000 and 30,000 Chinese nationals resided in Angola, and that they would soon rival the resident Portuguese population in Angola of some 47,000. She cautioned however, that the Angolan government has a limited capacity to track the number of Chinese nationals entering the country.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007