So here’s a story about a young Chinese man in Angola. I heard it from a 30-something deliveryman, who currently makes his living delivering express letters and packages in and around Shenzhen. He is dissatisfied with this job because although he is the number one deliveryman in his unit, he feels that his potential is being wasted. He said that after facing down gunmen three (!) times in the streets of Luanda, delivering packages in a rainstorm, which many other deliverymen refuse to do is child’s play, implying, of course, that what he really wants to do is play with the big boys.
Unlike many of the engineers and ranking officials who make news reports about China in Angola, this deliveryman had gone to Angola from a mountain village in Guangxi Province. He did not graduated from college and does not speak standard Mandarin, but nevertheless while in Angola he learned to speak conversational Portuguese because he was a job supervisor, mediating between Angolan workers and Chinese management on a commercial farm. After two years as an employee, however, the deliveryman struck out on his own. He set up a small transportation business, using his knowledge of Portuguese and his connections with Angolan workers to chauffeur Chinese investors while they were in country and to set up tours on request.
His description of working conditions suggest the extent to which gangs and the military control everyday life in Angola. He said, for example, that Chinese businessmen regularly bribed local officials to extend their holdings, avoid inspections, and exploit workers. He also explained that Chinese businessmen hired Angolan gunmen to settle accounts within the Chinese community. Indeed, on his account, Angolan men control the government and the military, Chinese men control the economy, and ordinary Angolans–men and women–are regularly fucked.
Overall, the situation sounds like colonialism with Chinese characteristics. Even his critique of the structure of Chinese aid to Angola seems neo-colonial. On the one hand, he thinks it necessary for governments to extend the business opportunities of its citizens throughout the world. In this sense, he supports Chinese expansion in Africa as necessary because it was good for Chinese people. On the other hand, he lamented that Chinese businessmen in Angola were attacking and undermining each other, making it difficult for all Chinese to take advantage of the situation.
The work was boomtown profitable. In less than five years (give or take), the deliveryman earned enough money to buy his parents and parents-in-law houses in a town near their home village, finance his wife’s beauty parlor, and pay for his child’s education. Today, his child lives with his parents, while his wife lives and works in an outer district urban village. That is where he returns when he isn’t working because he lives in a dormitory provided for deliverymen in western Shenzhen, a good two hours from his wife’s business and residence.
But here’s the rub: his finds his current work dissatisfying. He used the expression “大材小用 (dàcáixiǎoyòng),” which literally translates as “giving a talented person a small task,” but can also be translated as “wasting talent” to describe his situation. As an uneducated migrant to Shenzhen, he is only qualified for service jobs; even with experience it will be difficult for him to get a promotion to supervisor in a delivery company, let alone securing the capital necessary to open his own business. And no, he doesn’t want to work at his wife’s beauty parlor; he wants bigger and better.
The deliveryman claimed that no matter what he does in Shenzhen, he has better opportunities to make something of himself in Angola. And yes, this understanding of Angola specifically and Africa more generally as a place where ambitious men can achieve success that is out of their reach back home–including in Shenzhen–uncannily resembles the geographic morality which Edmund Burke claimed made British colonialism morally unfeasible. Indeed, today the only thing preventing him from getting on a plane for Luanda is his wife’s fear that if he returns to Angola, he might not make it back to Shenzhen, let alone Guangxi, where his family lives in happy ignorance (his words) of what he did to purchase their good life. Nonetheless, he has the boomtown itch and friends who can help him get a visa back.