By Admassu Feleke
In Ethiopia, as well as in other parts of Africa, China is effectively replacing Westerners (that is North America and Western Europe), not only as a trading partner, but also and more importantly as an agent of development. Today Ethiopia relies on China not only for industrial products, but also for her mega projects and finances. Of the nearly $40 billion debt Ethiopia carries, nearly half of it is owed to China. China has not only financed, but has supplied technical expertise, and armies of humble workers to see through all the projects she has been involved in. Our roads, dams, rail system, agriculture and urban development are for the most part built and run by the Chinese state or privately owned companies.
On the surface of it, Ethiopians should be grateful for the generous help China is giving us. Whereas Westerners seem more interested in financing and running their own famously inefficient charities and NGO’s, China appears to invest in our future. Whereas Westerners appear to be unwilling to risk any money on our poor nation, China seem to invest in us with reckless abandon. Shouldn’t we be grateful then?
I am not an economist, and I need not be one to see where this is eventually leading to. Western European powers of the 19th and 20th centuries had a clear design for Africa: it was a continent to be plundered at will, and its population exploited mercilessly. The roads, railroads, schools and hospitals were built mainly to facilitate their design. Their claim that theirs was a “civilizing mission” was a lie they told themselves to ease their guilty conscience, hoping in the process that history will be more forgiving. The truth is they reserved for Africa their most unchristian behavior. Whatever scrap they left was too little to help institute modern African states.
The Chinese presence in Africa, and particularly in Ethiopia, may appear to be quite different and even innocent at first blush in comparison to Western colonial presence. China has not sent an army to occupy our territories. She has not exploited our workers; and in fact she has sent armies of laborers to toil on our lands. She has not extracted capital out of our natural resources, but has financed our multifarious projects. So what should we worry about?
I, as a concerned Ethiopian, worry about the same reasons that appear innocuous on the surface. My question is: why does China and the Chinese companies invest so much in our country? Why does China feel the need to send tens of thousands of its citizens to Ethiopia?
The fact is that both these facts are not unique to Ethiopia. China, a soon to be the largest economy and the greatest superpower of the world, will have the capital and manpower to dominate the world as no one nation has done in history. There are already more than 50 million Chinese outside mainland China and Taiwan. There are more Chinese in France and United Kingdom than on the entire continent of Africa. So this trend is both universal and to be expected. Like all empires and superpowers of the past, China needs inevitably “international space” to expand her already large market, and exert her influence. From this perspective, nothing appears out of the ordinary.
What this trend will eventually create in Ethiopia, however, is a kind of economic colonialism where our dependence on one country is so great that our sovereignty and independence will be eroded substantially. As a “preferred” investor and donor, China will eventually dictate not only the terms of its economic relation and cooperation, but of the presence of its people on our soil. Here I am reminded of one old adage, and that is that “one must not put all one’s eggs in one basket”. An adage, I must add, that our “un-modern” and “un-educated”, but wiser emperors understood but too well.
The other important troubling aspect of China’s presence in Ethiopia is that China, being herself a fundamentally undemocratic nation, doesn’t have the slightest qualm in dealing with repressive and abusive governments. In other words, China, not having herself a shred of moral authority in matters of human and civil rights, will never dare criticize nor much less discourage the repressive and abusive tendencies of her trading partners. In effect, China has become, not unwittingly, a consenting accomplice of most human and civil right abuses perpetrated by regimes such as our present one.
This is not to imply at all, on the other hand, that the West would have behaved differently. It is no mystery to anyone that the U.S. and its allies, which continue to claim to be paragons and champions of human rights and civil liberties, are more than willing to ignore the repressions and abuses of this current Ethiopian regime, as long as it conducts their proxy wars against our regional terrorists. The West has never stopped and will never stop to exploit us, one way or another.
Another fear I harbor is that China may become a major obstacle towards our effort to institute a true democratic republic, where such an opportunity were to arise. I believe that China is more inclined to maintain the status quo actively than to arbitrate a negotiated transition. Ultimately our independence and sovereignty are in peril if we remain passive, and China continues to be the sole trading partner of Ethiopia. The question is should one give up one’s independence and sovereignty for economic gain?