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The New Imperialism: China in Angola

I n June 2010, the General Hospital in Angola’s capital of Luanda had to evacuate all medical personnel and patients when severe cracks appeared everywhere in the two-story building and bricks began to disintegrate, threatening imminent collapse. The 80,000-square-meter structure was the first public hospital built in the country since Angola became independent in 1975. It was built by the China Overseas Engineering Group Co. (COVEC) at a cost of $8 million, funded from a Chinese government credit line. Residents of Luanda noted that the shoddily constructed hospital contrasted with the $80 million state-of-the-art private clinic (built in 2006 by the Portuguese and sponsored by the national oil company Sonangol) that caters specifically to the ruling elite, oil workers, and the well-to-do. But the moral they drew from the story had little to do with the haves and have-nots, focusing instead on the short life span of public works undertaken by Chinese companies in Angola as part of the low-key economic and cultural offensive China is waging on the African continent.

Last March, I drove more than five hundred kilometers of newly tarred roads from Luanda toward the Lunda provinces in northeastern Angola. By October, on a follow-up trip, the tar had been removed from different sections of this expanse as a result of poor workmanship by Chinese engineers. This was not an isolated occurence. Throughout the country, tales of the Chinese roads being washed away by rain or filling up with potholes within months of being opened to traffic are now the stuff of legend. On the return trip, while dodging potholes as I drove through the province of Malanje, I saw a new Chinese-built school whose roof had blown off in a recent rainstorm. The older neighboring houses kept their roofs even though some of them were thatched.

The end of the twenty-seven-year civil war in Angola in 2002 ushered in a new era of promises in which national reconstruction, reconciliation, and democratization were to be the cornerstones for a new society for eighteen million Angolans. One dividend of peace would go to tens of thousands of demobilized soldiers and millions of internal displaced persons and unemployed who would aid in the national reconstruction effort—a process designed to strengthen genuine reconciliation and alleviate poverty at the same time, and which would be underwritten by an oil boom that later yielded fast-paced, two-digit economic growth (in 2010 alone, Angola exported an estimated $52.5 billion in oil; projections for 2011 put the same figure at $56.8 billion). But the government took a fateful step, calling on China to fulfill the promise of reconstruction—in the same way it had outsourced its national defense needs to Cuba from 1975 to 1989.

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The Cubans had indeed defended the regime against the formerly US-backed rebel movement UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. Los compañeros , as the Cubans were known, had also maintained, along with an occupying army, a regular stream of medical doctors, teachers, and other skilled workers to enable and secure the basic functioning of the state administration. In February 2009, Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos rightly acknowledged that Cuba was instrumental “both at the civil and military level, for the proclamation of Angola’s independence and for the organization of the new State and its administration.”

But Cuba also assisted in a purge of military officers critical of Dos Santos’s predecessor, Agostinho Neto, and provided the crucial military and security personnel to mop up dissenting voices throughout the country. Tens of thousands of people were killed, many simply for having middle-
class or entrepreneurial skills, or for being considered intellectuals. Among the arrested, thousands were sent to the local gulags the Cubans called “reeducation camps.”

Today Cuba is yesterday’s news in Angola, and China is regarded as the wave of the future. Its engineers are expected to remedy the country’s lack of basic infrastructure. Drawing on their own experience at home, China’s political theorists are expected by Angolan leaders to show how development can be given to the people as a substitute for civil liberties and human rights. The prize for Dos Santos and his clique is an economic boom that will give them the legitimacy to continue to rule after thirty-five years in power. The prize for the Chinese is access to Angola’s plentiful resources, especially oil. In 2010, Angola overtook Saudi Arabia to become China’s largest supplier of crude oil.

 

S ome independent estimates claim that there are more than a hundred thousand Chinese workers in Angola today. The Angolan ambassador to China, João Manuel Bernardo, stated publicly that in 2008 alone his consulate had issued more than forty thousand visas to the Chinese. In one single project, at the Kilamba Kiaxi social housing development in the outskirts of Luanda, the China International Trust and Investment Corporation employs ten thousand Chinese workers and a handful of Angolans. This state-owned enterprise is building up to seven hundred and ten apartment buildings and supporting infrastructure, in a thirty-eight-month project worth $3.53 billion. The number of Chinese laborers is expected to rise to twelve thousand at the peak of the project, according to the company’s website.

The majority of Chinese workers in Angola are engaged in reconstruction projects, but many thousands have branched out and become real estate developers, retailers, photocopy shop owners, street hawkers, and masseurs.

Angolans are impressed by the fact that the Chinese are hardworking people ready to take on any job. They are somewhat forgiving of the fact that the structures the Chinese build tend to fall down or fall apart, acknowledging that some responsibility for these failings goes to their own country’s institutionalized culture of corruption, incompetence, and disregard for public safety. After all, Brazilian and Portuguese construction companies have expertly exploited this environment for decades, leading Angolans to create a specific lexicon for the resulting public works: disposable roads, Styrofoam bridges, facade works, etc.

The difference between such past projects and today’s nonstop Chinese efforts is the scale. The Chinese intervention is centralized in the office of the president, who runs the country as an extensive fabric of patronage networks. Under bilateral agreements between the two countries, China’s Exim Bank has loaned some $4.5 billion to Angola since 2002 for reconstruction projects, and the Chinese government is expected to arrange for another $10 billion loan for the next two years.

The China International Fund (CIF), a private company based in Hong Kong, has taken charge of the most ambitious projects, such as the construction of 215,500 low-income social houses, an industrial area in Luanda with seventy factories, an international airport, 2,680 kilometers of national railway tracks and 133 depots, and 1,500 kilometers of interprovincial roads, with more on the drawing boards.

Chinese government and CIF interests in Angola overlap, making it difficult to distinguish state from private affairs, although the government seems at times impatient with the private company. Documents from WikiLeaks disclose information on CIF, passed by the Chinese ambassador to Angola, Bolum Zhang, to his US counterpart, Dan Mozena, in which Zhang reiterates that CIF is poorly managed and lacks leadership but enjoys a “close relationship” with President dos Santos, even though many of its projects have been halted for lack of capacity. The CIF flagship construction project, the new international airport, set to become the largest in Africa, was scheduled to open in 2010 after being announced in 2005. But when I visited last March (after the date set for completion), apart from cranes, trucks, Chinese nationals, and a partial foundation, there was little evidence of serious work going on. “CIF is a company that has no construction record or credentials,” a Chinese official said cynically. “Largely they are brokers who get contracts from the Angolan government and sell them to other Chinese companies for huge profits.”

The importance President dos Santos attaches to the Chinese building boom in Angola can be seen by the fact that he has assigned the presidential guard to cordon off some of the major projects now under way, such as the Kilamba Kiaxi social housing project, the special industrial area, and the Luanda airport.

Beyond the low engineering and construction standards, the Chinese intervention in Angola is widely seen as fostering social stultification and regression. It has enabled a string of political measures aimed at perpetuating the power of the president’s inner circle, while setting back internal dialogue on national reconstruction even within the ruling party itself. The Chinese presence has also spawned a mass fantasy about national goals that bears no resemblance to what can really be accomplished—the sheer weight of which, along with threats of repression, often silences critics of the Dos Santos regime.

Among the many promises, the president said during the 2008 legislative elections that he would deliver a million houses in four years. The message was spread that the Chinese were to perform the miracle of rebuilding the whole country in record time. The official propaganda motto was “Angola é um canteiro de obras,” meaning the whole country is a construction site of public works.

Dos Santos knew people did not believe that this would happen. But for a society mired in fear and corruption, waiting idly for changes that will never happen remains a popular substitute for attempts at action that would certainly be crushed.

 

J osé Eduardo dos Santos has been in power for thirty years. After his ruling MPLA Party won a Soviet-style victory by capturing eighty-two percent of the votes in 2010, Dos Santos enacted a new constitution that enables him to remain in office until 2022, giving him many years to preside over the Sinoization of his country.

The new constitution also ends the role of Parliament to monitor the executive office. Dos Santos’s current powers surpass even those he had under his previous Marxist-Leninist dictatorship (1979–91). Under the new constitution, the president can pass legislative decrees without bothering with Parliament.

Angola now faces a reverse democratization process: the comeback of a de facto one-party system that emulates the Chinese model but without the basic human development that China provides to its own. The concentration of power in the presidency has turned Sino-Angolan relations into a new stream for looting. The ruling elite around Dos Santos can maximize their profits while allowing the Chinese to acquire core prerogatives of sovereignty in what French academic Béatrice Hibou describes as “the privatization of the state.”

The Angolan presidency has become, in effect, an “epicenter of corruption.” In the past few years, a triumvirate of officials close to the president have built a multibillion-dollar private empire. The officials in question are General Hélder Vieira Dias “Kopelipa,” head of Casa Militar (Dos Santos’s office of military affairs, which oversees the army, the police, the state security, and the presidential guard); General Leopoldino Fragoso, adviser to General Kopelipa; and Manuel Vicente, chairman and CEO of Sonangol, the company that manages oil and gas reserves. The same triumvirate has been instrumental in managing Sino-Angolan relations, securing the loans from China, and supplying the Chinese with oil.

But while these men have acquired unparalleled financial power and tightened ties with China, there is no money to continue with most of the major projects the Chinese are supposed to build. There are rumors in Luanda of an investigation into General Kopelipa’s management of past Chinese loans to persuade China to give new and larger ones. The apparent measure also serves to assuage Chinese uneasiness about not being paid when they have already disbursed the funds.

 

A ngola is run through an extensive fabric of patronage networks enhanced by the fact that ninety-five percent of the country’s export revenues, which are essential for patronage, derive from foreign-controlled offshore oil production. Such economic arrangements have insulated the Dos Santos regime from the will of the Angolan people, who remain economically and politically irrelevant. China’s new prominence is part of an effort by the ruling elite to keep them that way by excluding society at large from the task of national reconstruction.

Poor Chinese communities have sprung up in some of the most dangerous slums of Luanda and in some isolated rural villages, where Chinese live as tenants of Angolan families. Even Chinese-language signs have sprung up on national roads to direct Chinese workers driving across the country.

In securing a foothold in Angola, China has run afoul of simmering popular discontent. Portrayals of ordinary Angolans as xenophobic, disgruntled perpetrators of violence toward the Chinese are becoming a staple in foreign media. The Wall Street Journal recently reported how “Chinese workers and companies have been singled out for physical attacks. Meanwhile, staff and facilities have been targeted by antigovernment forces.” As a matter of fact, on November 2, 2010, a group of Angolans killed two Chinese construction material dealers, Zhan Xiao Lin, 28, and Xiu Zhi Fu, 36, by throwing a grenade at the warehouse where the victims lived and worked.

“The Chinese have a habit of moving around with bundles of cash and by keeping lots of it at home without security. Thus, they make themselves easy targets,” explains the police superintendent, Chief Jorge Bengue, as to the cause of the violence against some Chinese nationals. He adds, “The police have worked a lot with the Chinese Embassy and companies to address the causes of violence.”

But the police officer has also seen the opposite side of this coin: “We are now experiencing a new incidence of organized crimes committed by Chinese engaged in armed robberies against their own enterprises and fellow workers. Last October, we detained three Chinese armed robbers who were raiding their own coworkers.”

Most Chinese crimes are nonviolent: stealing the tax-free imported construction materials assigned for national reconstruction and selling them on the black market. They are even selling sand, gravel, and water extracted from sites provided by Casa Militar for reconstruction. They are virtually unsupervised in their expansion throughout the countryside and have access to natural resources unknown to Angolans. Many trucks conducting such illegal business prominently display free pass credentials issued by Casa Militar, with the official logo of the presidency.

Because of their growing visibility and growing power, along with their support of an increasingly corrupt government, the Chinese in Angola, to use an American phrase from the 1960s, have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The Angolan minister of home affairs, Sebastião Martins, may have had the faintly sinister impact of these foreign guests and sponsors on his country’s future in mind when, late last year, he said, “There is peace from war here. But there is no social peace yet.”

 

Rafael Marques de Morais is an Angolan journalist specializing in political economy and human rights. He runs the website MakaAngola.com.

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