The Untold Stories of Chinese Translators in Angola

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The Untold Stories of Chinese Translators in Angola

The experiences of young Chinese professionals provide an additional layer of complexity to the relations between China and Lusophone Africa.

The Untold Stories of Chinese Translators in Angola

A worker’s helmet, inscribed with the word “Macau,” on Tigres Island, Angola, 2009 or 2010. Photo provided by Charles*.

Credit: Special Arrangement

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Portuguese-speaking Countries (also known as Forum Macao). 2023 also wraps up 40 years of Angola-China bilateral relations and a decade of the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2024, we are expecting the hosting of the first post-pandemic Forum Macao ministerial conference with representation from all top Lusophone representatives and officials, including from Angola.

Angola is China’s biggest and most emblematic Portuguese-speaking African economic partner. The 40 years of diplomatic relations have entered history, illustrated with an abundance of formal, ceremonial Angola-China visuals stemming from state visits and high-level exchanges. Yet there is another layer of Angola-China engagement, one that involves ordinary citizens of both countries.

We should be seriously accessing the knowledge of ordinary people if we want to understand China’s international engagement in perspective. For instance, how do the younger generation of Chinese participate in Angola-China relations?

This report is based on interview of Portuguese-language translators and interpreters – the relatively recent outflow of young, urbanized, educated, multilingual Chinese arriving in post-civil war Angola (from the 2000s onwards) for foreign missions and business exchanges. For many, this has been their first job after obtaining their undergraduate degree. 

All are language professionals by university training. They come from all parts of China. A great number of them are the only child in their family, having grown up with much financial comfort, parental love, and multigenerational attention. Effectively, heading to Africa is their rite of passage into a Global China, wherein they experience being Chinese beyond China’s borders.

In many cases, Angola provided these young Chinese professionals with their first lived experience of an African country. Their perceptions provide a window into Angola-China relations beyond the carefully choreographed summits and top-tier consultations. They represent the human level of diplomatic ties. 

In 2009, Charles* finished a Portuguese language and culture bachelor’s degree course in Macao and went to provincial Angola on contract with a Chinese state company. During his one-year stint in Angola, Charles took part in several port projects. Chatting with me, he recalled one instance of an unsuccessful business talk. The “Tigres Island” project was not developed as planned because the Angolan side allegedly withdrew from negotiations. Charles, therefore, likes to joke that he is the first and last person from Macao to have ever set foot on the deserted island (shown in the photo above).

Almost a decade and a half have passed since then, but Charles still has precious memories of Angola. He likes to check the different locations – airports, bridges, port facilities, and other complexes – on Google Earth and recount his professional and leisurely activities in the country, from resolving government red tape, to grocery shopping, watching football matches, playing tennis, eating lobsters, or simply bantering with Angolan colleagues about mundane subjects.

In academia, research on Angola-China relations fixates at the top decision-making level, such that we only rarely hear the voices of Charles and his peers. But these individuals shape people-to-people relations in important, if yet unquantified, ways. For example, Charles shared with me how he would purposefully misinterpret when explaining reasons for workers’ absences – births, illnesses, and deaths – to “help” whichever side appeared more pitiful. Such social and cultural subtlety is not often discussed.

Comparable to Charles in age, Thomas started as a translator and since then moved up to project manager with a Beijing-based Chinese state company. Thomas earned his undergraduate degree at a prestigious Beijing university in 2012. He is now in his early 30s and possesses multiple years of on-the-ground expertise working for the same company with intercontinental interests. 

Thomas is an impressive orator – eloquent, confident, and forthcoming. He closely follows news on Angola through Chinese social media. Thomas sees Angola’s colonial legacy hindering the country’s development, and he is mindful of the unpredictable nature of political leadership.

Even as Thomas identifies plenty of challenges to cooperation, he is sure about one thing. Thomas and the other young Chinese I talked to have internalized the idea of a greater developmental pursuit bringing China closer with the rest of the world and a vision for a different international order in which China takes a proactive role.

As Thomas’ classmate Judith explained, what matters is that they took part in this larger scheme, be it through preparatory work or guest accompaniment. Judith was young, but she saw Li Keqiang – then the Chinese premier – not in China but in Angola, back in the year 2014. A group photo is still proudly displayed in her parents’ home. According to Judith, an individual story like this always impresses relatives and friends. 

Rebecca is an empathetic Beijing-educated professional in her mid-20s. She is currently completing a master’s degree in Portugal. Previously, in the midst of the pandemic, she worked in Angola for a Chinese vehicle manufacturer. 

During our conversation, Rebecca recalled one incident in which her superior asked for a car to be driven to a distant site, away from Luanda. Two Angolans took turns driving, and when Rebecca and her colleagues arrived, it was getting dark. The Angolan drivers did not intend to stay and asked for a small sum to travel back instead. The Chinese company was reluctant to fund their return trip in full. Seeing that, Rebecca actually proposed she would pay them out of her own pocket. After much confusion and numerous phone calls, the Chinese accounts manager responded to the local workers more generously so that they could choose where to stay the night.

While doing her job, Rebecca saw both sides and often had to deal with conflicts between Chinese management and Angolan workers, sometimes at her own expense. In a multimillion deal, Rebecca’s gesture of goodwill would still be qualitatively significant to the people involved, helping foster smooth relations. Such stories are replicated countless times in each Chinese development project, adding extra layers of complexity to the story of Angola-China relations.

Immediately after graduating from a private university in Macao, Robert went to Angola to work for a private Chinese enterprise. During that time, Robert demonstrated an admirable capacity to broker business deals. However, just before signing a regular contract, he fell out with the company and was not able to continue in Angola.

He is now heading for Brazil, another promising Lusophone market, where he will start a new chapter, much more fluent in Portuguese and knowledgeable about Chinese overseas engagement. Enthusiastically, Robert envisions himself flourishing as a mobile young expatriate in the Lusophone space and fashioning his personal project – even if the world economy is enduring a downturn.

These five young Chinese professionals, in descending order of age, are storytellers of Angola-China relations. They all saw and experienced Angola profoundly. They were involved in some of the infrastructural projects that make headlines as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Importantly, different from the earlier generations of Chinese laborers, they are perfectly capable of articulating their stories and claiming their share of participation in China’s global outreach. They embody the refined profiles of a Lusophone Africa-China encounter. Capturing their narratives provides a fuller picture of Angola-China relations. 

*Pseudonyms are used throughout.

This article was elaborated in June 2023 during The Chinese in Africa/Africans in China (CA/AC) Research Network “Writing for Impact” Workshop at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.