The best place to gauge the extent of China's growing role in Angola is at the Quatro de Fevereiro airport in the capital, Luanda, where crowds of Chinese wait their turn to have their passports stamped.
One immigration official complained to anyone who cared to listen: "These Chinese come to Angola and can't even understand what they're being asked."
The arriving passengers may not speak Portuguese, Angola's national language, but they have good reason to be in the country: China has been one of the main financiers of oil-rich Angola's rapid development since three decades of civil war ended in 2002.
In exchange for loans and aid – estimated to total more than US$4 billion since 2004 – China has been guaranteed a generous chunk of Angola's future petroleum production. Angola is one of Africa's two biggest oil producers, the other being Nigeria.
The accords also stipulate that 70 percent of the country's development projects be given to Chinese companies, which prefer to import their own workers.
According to the Chinese Embassy in Angola, there are 20,000 Chinese working all over the country, although some reports estimate the figure could be anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000.
He Fei, 35, personifies the Chinese worker in Angola: male, young, with a wife and child at home, looking for better opportunities abroad. "I came to Luanda because I didn't have money. Here things are better," he said, taking a break from his job on the construction site of a seven-story building in the up-market Maianga district of the city.
Yet the lack of HIV prevention campaigns for Chinese workers in Angola is remarkable, considering how far away they are from their families, the length of time they spend away from home, and the extra cash they have left at the end of the month. Angola has an HIV prevalence rate of 2.5 percent, but it can reach 10 percent in some border areas.
Relying on isolation
Luanda's cityscape is dotted with seemingly endless construction sites, all having a common denominator: Chinese workers in their white helmets and unmistakable blue uniforms, who appear not to care about the searing November heat.
Workers commute by bus between the construction sites and their housing complexes. On many of the sites, work continues at night and during weekends. In their free time, most remain in the complexes where they live. Contact with the local population is minimal.
|We just give a warning to the newcomers: don't go out, and don't rub up against local girls|
"They prefer to stay at home. Many of them have had bad experiences and have been robbed or stopped by the police because their documents hadn't been regularised yet," said Wang Wei, an attaché at the Chinese Embassy in Angola.
The construction companies rely on the isolation of their workers for HIV prevention. "We just give a warning to the newcomers: don't go out, and don't rub up against the local girls," joked Yan Xing Hua, local office manager of Sino-Hydro, the Chinese state engineering company.
The company has been in Angola since 2005 and has approximately 1,000 workers scattered across the country, building apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, stadiums, railways, highways and dams.
According to Yan, the only information they get before leaving China is a brochure with warnings about potential dangers to their health, including AIDS.
Besides the lack of integration with the local population, the workers' "exemplary behaviour" is the main excuse for the lack of HIV awareness campaigns.
"Chinese are very diligent, work hard and like to save. They're not about to spend money on girls," said embassy attaché Wang.
|Chinese are very diligent, work hard and like to save. They're not about to spend money on girls.|
"All of them are married. They don't go after girls - this would be bad for their families. And Chinese don't practice casual sex," claimed Sino-Hydro's Yan.
The truth is, however, that sex is still not openly discussed in Chinese society, and proof of this came when a young official refused to participate in an interview with IRIN/PlusNews because he thought it inappropriate to talk about condoms, especially with a female journalist.
"When I worked in Ethiopia, we set up a place to distribute condoms. It didn't work. They were embarrassed and the condoms stayed right where they were," recalled Yan, who has been in Angola for slightly more than a year.
He saw no need to distribute condoms at Sino-Hydro. "If they need them, they buy them themselves," said Yan. "But I've never seen anyone need one."
It was an assertion echoed by workers IRIN/PlusNews spoke to. "Condoms? What for? All there are here are men!" said Bai Wan Bo, 42, who is working on an 18-storey edifice near the legislative assembly in the Maianga district.
Bai, who has been in Luanda for a year, said he had attended a workshop on health when he arrived, but nothing specific regarding HIV was discussed. He did not think this was a problem, because he was not going to find a girlfriend, or pay for sex; he did not touch drugs, and was not about to have sex with his workmates. "Homosexuality is a Western practice," said Bai. "It doesn't happen among us."
And when workers miss their spouses? "We go shopping, play soccer or go to the beach," said Peng Chong, 23, who has a girlfriend in China. He has been in Luanda for a year and plans to stay for four more.
Photo: Lilian Liang/PlusNews
|"These Chinese come to Angola and can't even understand what they're being asked."|
Invisible, but dangerous
But things are not always so clear cut. Xie Chang Fa, 44, a painter who is married and the father of three teenage children, has an Angolan girlfriend, Fina, 22. Although he spends his weekends with her, and some of his $800 salary, he insisted that "We don't have sex; it's just for the company."
HIV advocacy organisations are beginning to take notice of the migrant worker population. "There have already been cases of Angolan women getting pregnant from Chinese workers, so sex is taking place," said Santos Kiame, head of the investigation, research and partnerships section at the National Institute for the Fight Against AIDS (INLS).
Jorge Preto, representative of the leading company in Angola's Business Committee for the Fight Against HIV and AIDS, an employers' coalition, admitted that Chinese workers were yet to be included in their outreach programmes.
"But the intention is there; mainly in the provinces, where the number of Chinese is even higher. We want to carry out targeted campaigns," he said.
The INLS will use World AIDS Day on 1 December as an opportunity to reach out to Chinese workers, inviting them to activities marking the event.
"We're concerned. Sex between Chinese and Angolans may not be visible, but it's happening," said Kiame. "And it's when it isn't visible that the situation becomes more dangerous."