Cracks show in China's Angola partnership
By Louise Redvers
JOHANNESBURG - Crouched on haunches on the edge of a crumbling pavement in
Luanda, capital of Angola, a group of Chinese construction workers are eating
noodles from tin bowls, wearing floppy straw hats under their green safety
helmets to protect them from the aggressive midday sun.
The men, slim and in their 40s, sit in their in greying overalls, seemingly
oblivious to the noxious fumes of the throng of traffic passing them by.
Angola is China's largest trading partner in Africa. Walk down any street of
the overcrowded and congested city and you will come
across a Chinese construction site. Even in the most remote rural areas it is
not unusual to see red Chinese lanterns and hand-painted Mandarin road signs.
Chinese companies are involved at all levels of construction, from repairing
roads, railways and airports, building football pitches, schools, hospitals and
government offices, and even creating entire new residential suburbs.
Sino-Angolan relations took off at the end of Angola's three-decade conflict in
2002, when the Portuguese-speaking country was desperate for cash and know-how,
just as China was embarking on its "Going Out" strategy of securing natural
resources and new investment markets.
In 2010, trade between the two countries was just under US$25 billion; in the
past seven years, more than $10 billion of Chinese credit has been extended to
Angola, with the latter paying back its debts in oil.
But as China's presence in Angola has grown, so too has Western suspicion, and
even though Brazil has also extended oil-backed credit to Angola, it is China
that has been labeled in some quarters, particularly the US, as resource-hungry
Lucy Corkin, a research associate at the University of London's School of
Oriental and African Studies Africa-Asia Center, said much of the "hysteria"
around Sino-Angolan ties was based on "confusion about what is Chinese
investment and what is Chinese aid".
The fact many Chinese companies operating in Angola are state-owned adds to the
confusion, but Corkin said: "These billions of dollars are not direct
investment, it is financing, basically a facilitation to allow an oil swap so
that Angola can buy goods and services from China."
"When people say 'the Chinese are buying up Angola' it is a bit hysterical
because even though some Chinese companies have bought oil blocks there, direct
investment into Angola is only around $70 million.
"The Chinese government has made no secret about wanting to expand trade and
there is a growing private sector presence, particularly among smaller supply
chain operations who have come in behind the big state companies but, for now,
the majority of the trade is in oil."
Last November, China's Vice President Xi Jinpeng, who is widely tipped to take
over from President Hu Jintao, visited Angola on a tour of Africa which also
took him to Botswana and South Africa.
In a joint statement at the conclusion of the visit, much was made about the
development of a "strategic partnership" to "jointly seize opportunities and
tackle on challenges facing the new international context".
Such "challenges" and "opportunities" were discussed on January 31 in Luanda at
a high-level conference organized jointly by the University of Durham, the
Center for Scientific Studies and Investigation at the Catholic University of
Angola and the South African Institute of International Affairs.
Organizer Dr Marcus Power, from the University of Durham, told Inter Press
Service: "Although there is a lot of academic research about the relationship
between the two countries, there has been a real lack of dialogue among
"There are tensions between ordinary Angolans and Chinese people," he said. "We
have seen some violent attacks, there is an element of racism and a lot of that
stems from cultural and linguistic developments. We need to talk about this."
Reliance on imported labor, no local job or skills creation and a lack of
transparency on how the credit lines are managed, including allegations of
misappropriation, are some of the major concerns being voiced in Angola.
Although most people welcome the new roads and infrastructure, questions are
being asked about long-term sustainability. The new Luanda General Hospital,
built four years ago at a cost of $8 million, had to be closed down due to
Six months later, patients are still being treated in tents and repair works at
the hospital are yet to begin.
Power, whose research has examined a number of Chinese housing being projects
in Angola, also has his concerns: "There seems to have been little consultation
with Angolan people and communities about many Chinese construction projects.
"With these new residential developments, you get a sense that in some cases
Chinese models are being applied to Angola but not developed with Angolan
people or their needs in mind. A lot of Chinese building projects in Angola are
being billed as aid or development but they are not - they are business
Whenever criticized about its Africa policy, China's response is that the set
up is "win-win", that African countries in which China operates benefit as much
Angola, while rarely taking the bait of international criticism, highlights the
amount of physical reconstruction it has been able to achieve while, between
the lines, it hints that other countries had the chance to get their foot into
one of the world's fastest-growing economies, but chose not to.
The question is, said Power, "where will this relationship be in 20 years, how
long will Angola's oil last and how long will they continue to have this
bargaining power with China?"