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China in Africa: Developing ties



By Lucy Ash
Reporter, Crossing Continents

Chinese construction workers in Luanda
Chinese workers are redeveloping Luanda - but costing Angolan jobs
In Angola, tens of thousands of Chinese workers have come to rebuild a country devastated by a long civil war.

It is not just the capital Luanda that has become a vast construction site. In the provinces too, blue-jacketed Chinese workers are ubiquitous, building roads, railways, and schools.

Three hours south of the capital, in the coastal town of Sumbe, I find a team of 95 Chinese men finishing a technical college and about to start work on a hospital. The site is set back from the road and surrounded by a high fence.

Inside is Wang Weiheng, a 28-year-old doctor from the Chinese city of Chonqing, whose job is to look after the construction workers.

"I try my best," she says, showing us the spartan dormitories where 10 men sleep in bunkbeds draped with mosquito nets. "But in the rainy season we had several cases of malaria."

In the kitchen are lots of paper signs in Mandarin taped to the wall. Weiheng says they tell the cooks which foods some people will not eat.

"I don't like pig's ear or leg of pork; others don't eat beef," says Dr Wang.

"Our food is very important to us - it stops us from feeling too homesick."

No locals

Outside I notice that all the materials from bags of cement to scaffolding poles have been imported from China.

Apart from the security guard at the gate and two Angolan women employed to wash vegetables and clean the latrines and bathroom, I see no local people here.

Since 2004, Angola has taken out $8-12bn in loans from China. Thanks to its huge oil deposits in the Gulf of Guinea, the former Portuguese colony has become China's biggest African trading partner.

Dr Weiheng Wang
I don't speak Portuguese so its hard to communicate. I feel quite lonely sometimes
Dr Weiheng Wang

In exchange for Angola's oil, energy-hungry China is helping to repair the country's infrastructure.

Although Beijing insists its credit comes with no strings attached, the deal in Angola is that 70% of tenders for public works must go to Chinese firms.

That means tens of thousands of jobs here for Chinese workers, engineers, planners - and even doctors.

Dr Wang says she saw the job advertised on the internet. Her husband, whom she met a medical school, also applied for a posting in Angola.

He is the doctor at another building site in the town of Uaco Cungo, a day's drive away. Neither had been abroad before.

"In my mind, Africa was a country filled with animals like zebras and lions and lots of grass," laughs Dr Wang as she looks across the dusty, flat landscape beyond the camp. "So when I got here it was a big surprise."

She seems pleased to see us because she rarely meets other women. Her husband only visits her occasionally, and neither she nor the workers are encouraged to go to the beach or the market in town.

"There's not much time in the day and the gates are locked at dusk because it is not safe to go out," she adds.

"They tell us that some Angolans have guns. Anyway I don't speak Portuguese so its hard to communicate. I feel quite lonely sometimes."

Expanding capacity

Dr Wang says she is earning around $1,200 a month, more than she could get as a newly qualified doctor in her home town. She and her husband plan to stay in Angola for a couple of years until they have saved enough to go back to Chongqing and start a family.

Lin and Yibing
Lin and Yibing found much more opportunity in Angola than China
For many Chinese, Africa is a land of great opportunity. Another couple I met, Lin and his wife Yibing, have a small factory and an acupuncture clinic in Luanda.

"There's too much competition in China", says Lin. "Here I have much more chance of establishing a business. Angola is like my second home."

My translator, Lucy Corkin, an academic from South Africa, is researching the impact of Chinese credit across the continent.

She explains that a few years ago an overcrowded China decided to encourage its companies to invest abroad by creating the "Going Out" policy.

The idea was to expand excess capacity overseas and to cut unemployment at home.

"China has an unemployment rate of about 9% - not much by a developing country's standards, but 9% of 1.3 billion is definitely a lot of people."

Importing labour

But the lack of jobs for Angolans in Chinese firms is causing increasing resentment in a country suffering from chronic unemployment after nearly three decades of war.

Because of its oil and diamonds, and a projected economic growth of 24% this year, Angola looks rich on paper. But most people live in abject poverty.

Fernando Macedo of the Association for Justice Peace and Democracy, a Luanda based human rights group, accepts that because of the war a whole generation of Angolans are poorly educated.

"But why do we need to import unskilled labour from China," he says.

"It doesn't make any sense."

Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 reports China's role in Angolan redevelopment on Thursday, December 6 at 1100 GMT.


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