Ethiopia: Crouching lions, hidden dragon

The baggage lounge at Addis Ababa’s Bole airport is filled with activity as the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Beijing arrives. Young Chinese men, casually dressed in flannel trousers and shirts, gather around the luggage belt, lifting off large suitcases and heavily wrapped boxes. A crowd of these arrivals, perhaps 50 strong, queue up together outside to be collected by a fleet of waiting minibuses.

These young men are not tourists. They live in Ethiopia, part of the influx of Chinese labour in the last decade that has changed the face of Africa. In states across the continent, Chinese communities have sprung up. Some are based around the myriad infrastructure projects that the world’s emerging superpower is implementing. Many are simply trading on a small scale, importing buckets and work tools, the low-cost essentials that power rural life on this continent.

A Chinese construction worker supervises the building of a road in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
A Chinese construction worker supervises the building of a road in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This was the year that China became the world’s second largest economy, overtaking its Asian neighbour Japan and prompting much soul-searching around the world over the imminent arrival of the Chinese. But in Africa, the Chinese have already arrived.

Trade between Africa and China topped $100 billion this year -more than between the United States and Africa – and China is the single biggest manufacturer of infrastructure on the continent. The Chinese make things, things that African nations desperately need. Roads and railways, hospitals and schools, pipes and dams; Chinese companies have built them all.

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Everywhere one looks on the African continent – and especially in resource-rich countries – China is developing extensive trade links. Oil, of course, ranks high. Chinese companies are active in Nigeria, which is the continent’s largest oil-producer, as well as Angola and Sudan. But the copper mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia, the iron ore mines in South Africa, and the forests of Cameroon; all send their bounty to China.

Listen to the words of Julius Ole Sunkuli, Kenya’s ambassador to China, as repeated by leaked diplomatic cables: “Africans [are] frustrated by western insistence on capacity building, which translated… into conferences and seminars. They instead preferred China’s focus on infrastructure and tangible projects.”

From one perspective, China is becoming a rich country. The shopping avenues of New York, Dubai and Tokyo are full of well-off Chinese buying high-end goods. Yet the Chinese government still likes to present itself as a developing country, full of solidarity for the developing world. Countries in Africa strive to emulate China’s phenomenal growth over the past decade. And China helps them achieve it, for example by increasing the number of African students it admits to its universities. Education, infrastructure, immigration: China offers all of these things to Africa. No other single country can boast as much.

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Such prosperity comes at a price. China’s foreign relations have long been based on a principle of political “non-interference”. Good governance, one of Africa’s most difficult challenges, comes a distant second to business imperatives. That means that when China does business with unsavoury African regimes such as Zimbabwe, Chinese weapons are used against the people of the country.

Moreover, the benefits that come to African governments and big business do not always trickle down to citizens. Chinese products have devastated local industries, such as the manufacturing sector in Nigeria, and Chinese companies have caused ructions elsewhere: in Zambia, whose mining industry has received more than $400m in investments from the Chinese government, Chinese managers at the Collum coal mine in the southern Sinazongwe province were reported to have shot and wounded 11 of their workers during a protest this year. The Chinese presence has also provoked some political parties to campaign on no-foreigner platforms.

READ MORE: The National

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