Chinese investment in Africa has built roads, railways, dams, and more, spurring new interest and competition from other global investors. Critics say China’s too often exploitative, including with loans that leave some countries too deeply in debt. But its investments helped famine-prone Ethiopia become one of the world’s fastest growing economies. Now, however, civil strife is putting that success at risk, for both Ethiopia and China.
A place once known best in the West for its wars and famines – Ethiopia has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world – with Africa’s second biggest population on a continent with the world’s youngest population. And that sounds like an opportunity to China.
(Sound of train whistle)
And this is the railway that China built, running almost 500 miles from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to the tiny country of Djibouti, where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea in a narrow sea lane that’s vitally important for global trade and military use, where China’s building a free trade area and expanding the port, and where China, and the United States, have military bases.
(Sound at train station)
On this early morning, just a few passengers get on at the Chinese-built station in Addis Ababa. The choice of seats is wide open. A Somali woman in a traditional robe lies across three seats, covers her face with her shawl, and settles in to snooze. Others watch as the city gives way to countryside.
(Sound on train)
We crawl, as we pass a herd of camels. When this train first started operation, in January 2018, it went much faster. But herders didn’t know to get their cattle and camels off the tracks. They lost a bunch. Some herders got angry, and sometimes attacked the train. One window of this carriage has a burst of cracks, with a little hole – like someone shot at it.
A passenger sitting near me is Khader Meagag. He’s on his way home to Djibouti. He’s a security guard at a construction company there, and he says he takes this train often. He’s impressed with what China’s doing to transform Ethiopia, Djibouti, and the whole region, with construction, with this train, and more:
Khader Meagag: Before, occidental countries – England, French, was coming here [to] invest. Italian also. They built a railway, the old railway. And now, I think, it’s the time of Chinese.
Mary Kay Magistad: Now it’s the time of the Chinese.
KM: (Laughs) It’s a competition. And I think that the Djiboutians or Ethiopians, they accept who offer the best things, and low cost.
(Sound of getting off the train at Adama Station)
We get off at the first stop, Adama – home to one of Ethiopia’s 10 new industrial parks, many built with Chinese financing, by Chinese companies. These are part of an effort to boost Ethiopia’s already impressive economic growth.
(Sound in factory)
Mary Kay Magistad: Wow, look at this!
Tesfalem Waldyes: It’s the new Ethiopia.
TW: The new China.
(Sound in Antex factory)
My travel companion is Tesfalem Waldyes, an Ethiopian journalist working with me to explore the impact of Chinese investment in Ethiopia. We’re in a factory in Adama of a Chinese company called Antex. It makes polo shirts and other clothing for export to Europe. Some go to H&M. A young manager named Xu Pengda shows us around. ‘But call me Max’, he says. He impresses Tesfalem – or Tes – with the local language he’s picked up:
(Max and Tes converse in Amharic)
Mary Kay Magistad: So tell me about what I’m seeing here.
Xu Pengda (Max): Here, we have working 1,800 people. And we have been here one year. Everything’s doing fine. You can see most of our workers are female – because the women are more, they are more patient.
From where we stand, above the vast factory floor, we see neat, well-spaced work stations, separated with wide aisles, down which supervisors walk. Some of the young women workers bend over sewing machines. Others cut bright blue cloth to fill today’s order.
Mary Kay Magistad: So how long is the work day?
Xu Pengda (Max): The work day is six days, and one day off.
MKM: And how many hours a day?
XP (Max): Eight hours. We only do one shift.
MKM: No overtime?
XP (Max): Yes, no overtime.
MKM: So not like in China.
XP (Max): Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not like in China. Maybe because of the cultural differences, people here don’t want to do the overtimes.
The women make about $55 a month, or $660 a year. That’s just a bit shy of Ethiopia’s per capita GDP. Some workers in other industrial parks get paid half that when they start. And especially when the industrial parks first opened, workers complained about the low wages and the long hours, and many workers left. In one industrial park, Hawassa, worker turnover early on was more than 100% a year – though, it’s come way down since. Here in Adama, Max says, they’re at about 30% turnover a year, and working to retain staff:
Xu Pengda (Max): We anticipated some difficulty here, because this industry may be new to the local workers. But we have faith. And just like 30 or 40 years (ago) in China, we faced the same situation as here.
Mary Kay Magistad: So are the workers learning fairly quickly?
XP (Max): Yes, I think so. And we see a lot of workers, they are very hardworking here. And they are willing to learn. This makes everything worthwhile, I think.
MKM: So do you think Ethiopia has the potential to do what China did?
XP (Max): Yeah. Yes, I sincerely do believe in that. Yeah.
And, he believes, the Chinese train we took to get here, still managed by Chinese, will be good for business, too:
Xu Pengda (Max): For now, because we are just starting up this business, our exporting is not very large. So basically, we use the container truck to go to Djibouti. But I think in the future we may use the train, because it can take more exports, and it can reduce our cost.
So Chinese and other companies in Chinese-built industrial parks can send their goods on a Chinese-built train to a Chinese-built port. Ethiopians get jobs, a chance to build skills and diversify the economy. And China gets a presence in the strategically vital Horn of Africa. As China’s leaders like to say – it’s a win-win.
But Ethiopia is still a volatile place, with many ethnic and political rivalries. And one just turned hot again, in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray. That’s included airstrikes against the local Tigrean militia, which attacked a government military base.
Birhanu Jula Gelacha: (Speaking in Amharic)
The Deputy Chief of the Ethiopian Army, Birhanu Jula Gelalcha, said in a press conference, “Our country has entered into a war it did not want. The war is a shameful war. It does not have a point.”
But it will likely have an impact – on Ethiopia’s growth and goals, on China’s loans and investments and projects to connect the region, and perhaps on regional stability. Grand plans are only as good as ground truths allow them to be.
You’re on China’s New Silk Road. I’m Mary Kay Magistad, a former China correspondent for NPR and for PRX’s The World, reporting here with the Global Reporting Centre on how China’s global ambition is seen around the world, and at the impact China’s actions and investments with the Belt and Road Initiative are having on the ground.
And in this last episode of the series, with a new president elected in the United States, who’ll have his own approach and balance to working with China, and countering China in the world, we’re looking at Africa – the world’s youngest population, with some of the world’s biggest challenges, and greatest potential. And Ethiopia has shown it has both.
Berit Reiss-Anderson (Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee): I now call upon the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate of 2019 to come forward and give his Nobel lecture. Prime Minister. (Applause)
Less than a year before open conflict broke out between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigray, a youngish man with a trim beard walked on the Nobel stage to accept his award. Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister since April 2018, was being honored for his role in ending a two-decade-long war with neighboring Eritrea. He accepted the award:
Abiy Ahmed: …on behalf of Africans and citizens of the world for whom the dream of peace has often turned into a nightmare of war. Today, I stand here in front of you talking about peace because of fate. I crawled my way to peace through the dusty trenches of war years ago. I was a young soldier when war broke out between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I witnessed firsthand the ugliness of war in frontline battles.
And now, he said, his government was working for peace, prosperity, rights and democracy:
Abiy Ahmed: We have released all political prisoners. We have shut down detention facilities where torture and vile human rights abuses took place. Today, Ethiopia is highly regarded for press freedom. It is no more a “jailor of journalists”. Opposition leaders of all political stripes are free to engage in peaceful political activity.
These things did get better under Abiy at first. Then they slipped. Journalists started being arrested again, and jailed – including for covering the Tigrean side of the current conflict. But the US Ambassador to Ethiopia, Michael Raynor, was upbeat about prospects for reform on civil rights, and for business, when I talked to him in January 2020:
Michael Raynor: The current government is very clear in its commitment to fostering true private sector, competitive economic environment. As you can imagine the United States feels a great affinity for that model, both because we feel it’s the best way to create economic opportunity for Ethiopia and the region, and frankly because it also creates commercial opportunity for US firms.
The Ambassador tells me the United States is working closely with the Ethiopian government to speed reforms.
Michael Raynor: This is very much win-win engagement, right? This is creating…
Mary Kay Magistad: That’s a very Chinese term.
MR: You know what? I think we had it first, and we have it best. We, very much, are supporting Ethiopia’s capacity to be prosperous, to be self-reliant, to graduate from any dependency they may have either on us, or on other partners, or on the Ethiopian government themselves, to create their own economic activity and their own economic opportunity.
But in working toward these goals, the US has some catching up to do. China has been active in investing in infrastructure in Ethiopia and Africa for a couple of decades, with thousands of Chinese companies and more than a million Chinese now based in Africa. China is now Africa’s biggest trading partner – though, with far more Chinese imports going into Africa than African exports going to China. And China has lent to almost every African country, for infrastructure projects often done by Chinese firms – a total of $150 billion in loans. This started more than a decade before China officially launched the Belt & Road Initiative in 2013 – which is, of course, an effort to build a belt of land routes, a Maritime Silk Road of sea routes, and other infrastructure, connecting the world in a new network of global trade and global power with China at the center.
(Sound on streets in city center of Addis Ababa)
And in the capital, Addis Ababa, Chinese projects abound – as Tes, my Ethiopian journalist partner for this episode, points out:
Tesfalem Waldyes: So just walking distance – the newly built stadium is just on the other way – like five minutes, seven minutes from here.
Mary Kay Magistad: And that’s a Chinese-built stadium?
TW: Yes. The Chinese-built stadium is around there.
MKM: So there’s a Chinese-built tram, Chinese-built ring roads, stadium.
TW: And the financial district, many of the headquarters of Ethiopian banks are built by the Chinese.
(Sound of riding in cab)
In a cab, later, driving around, it’s clear how much Chinese construction in recent years has transformed the Addis Ababa skyline. Tes says, many locals are impressed:
Tesfalem Waldyes: They say that our city looks like Dubai, now. And people are really surprised by the fast – the pace of building of such high buildings. So people are used to take pictures, admire the buildings, and they really love it. They felt it like – Addis Ababa is developing. Ethiopia is developing. Now we are catching the rest of the world.
(Sound of chatter, in coffee shop)
So getting a cup of coffee – which originated here, in Ethiopia – can now be done in trendy coffee shops like this one, where young Ethiopian professionals chat over blond-wood tables.
Tes has been a journalist in Ethiopia for much of the 20 years that China’s been active here. He’s in his late 30s. So he was born just before the famine that killed a million-plus Ethiopians. And he grew up in an Ethiopia that ended civil wars and embraced economic development, if not always civil rights. He co-founded and now runs an online news site, called Ethiopia Insider. Earlier, he co-founded a newspaper for Ethiopians living throughout East Africa. But he missed seeing some of Ethiopia’s transformation first-hand, because, under the previous government, he, a couple of other journalists and six bloggers, ended up in prison.
Tesfalem Waldyes: I think the government at that time wants to show the youngsters who are very active in social media and online, to send a message for the young people not to interfere in the next election. If they see you as a potential threat, they wanted to cut you down. They wanted to minimize the harm, ahead of time.
Tes was never convicted. In fact, he says, it was never clear what the charge was. But he still spent 15 months in prison.
Tesfalem Waldyes: It’s a very bad moment. I can say it’s one of my worst time(s) in my life.
His prison cell was 12 feet by 12 feet. And it usually had a dozen people in it, give or take.
Tesfalem Waldyes: They give us a mattress. So there is no bed. We sleep on the ground. And it’s very crowded. And there is no space even to walk a little bit. We are only allowed to go to the bathroom in the morning and the evening time for 15 minutes. All of us (had) to finish in 15 minutes.
He says the one thing he looked forward to, was the 10 minutes each day when he was allowed to go outside.
Tesfalem Waldyes: We go to the compound and we sit under the sun. So that was my precious time to see the sky.
Mary Kay Magistad: And even now you really appreciate sunshine, I’ve noticed.
TW: It is, it is! Really. Especially after that time, I always enjoy sunshine. I always enjoy the blue sky. You know, some of the things we take for granted, we didn’t know how precious they are until we lose them.
What Ethiopia risks losing now, with the new conflict in Tigray, is the momentum of 15 years of sizzling economic growth. Also at risk is the promise of more openness and democracy that Prime Minister Abiy talked about when he received his Nobel Peace Prize for making peace with Eritrea. This matters for China, because grand plans do need to mesh with local realities. And Ethiopia’s realities right now – are not good, in ways Reuters reported in mid-November 2020:
Reuters anchor: Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed is accusing his foes of atrocities, after a week of bloodshed in the country’s Tigray region. This statement also came as Amnesty International, in a separate report, said a mass killing may have hit hundreds of civilians, who were stabbed and hacked to death.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees had fled to Sudan, and Tigray’s leaders said they had fired rockets at neighboring Eritrea’s airport and Ministry of Information, because – the Tigreans said – the Eritreans were helping the Ethiopian government.
There’s a long history of bad blood here. Eritrea and Tigray used to be neighboring regions within Ethiopia. Both fought long wars with the government. Both won. Eritrea became an independent nation, and Tigreans took over the Ethiopian government, and stayed in power for almost 30 years, fighting a war with the Eritreans during that time. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – who is not Tigrean, has long chafed at Tigreans challenging his authority.
(Sound at sidewalk café)
William Davison: There’s a lot of contestation for power. And there’s an awful lot of volatility.
This is William Davison. He’s the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Ethiopia. We’re talking at a hotel’s outdoor café in Addis Ababa in January 2020, months before conflict broke out in Tigray. But William, like many Ethiopians, can see trouble coming:
William Davison: And in the midst of a violent political context, meaning that small arguments or apparently small arguments can spiral into protests and violent altercations, costing lives, playing out along ethnic lines, to some extent religious lines as well.
At that point, Tigrean leaders had already broken away from a long-standing government coalition party. In September 2020, they held their own local election in defiance of a federal government decision to postpone all elections because of COVID-19. They said Prime Minister Abiy was just trying to undemocratically hang on to power. And then, in early November, the government accused the Tigrean militia of attacking a federal government military base in Tigray. And Abiy went on national television…
Abiy Ahmed: (Speaks in Amharic)
…to say the government was taking military action in Tigray, and enforcing a six-month state of emergency there. The Tigrayan government retorted on its Facebook page that it would win, and it called the conflict, ‘justified.’
This conflict could threaten regional stability – in an area not known for having a lot of it. Ethiopia’s neighbors in the Horn of Africa include Somalia, Sudan and Djibouti. And when Abiy spoke to his Nobel audience, he made a point of saying he wanted the Horn of Africa to be peaceful – an oblique reference to US and Chinese military bases near each other in Djibouti:
Abiy Ahmed: The Horn of Africa today is a region of strategic significance. The global military superpowers are expanding their military presences in the area. Terrorist and extremist groups also seek to establish a foothold. We don’t want the Horn to be a battleground for superpowers, nor a hideout for the merchants of terror and brokers of despair and misery. We want the Horn of Africa to become a treasury of peace and progress. Indeed, we want the Horn of Africa to become the Horn of Plenty for the rest of the continent.
That’s been China’s pitch to Africa as a whole, with the Belt & Road Initiative. Let us come in and build for you, and help you thrive, like we have.
(Sound of birds chirping, light traffic, outside African Union headquarters)
A symbol of that promise sits in the heart of Addis Ababa, just beyond a long row of brightly colored flags from all the countries in Africa. It’s the silver-domed African Union headquarters, built and designed by Chinese companies, with the construction financed by China. But it’s had a couple of issues since it opened in 2012. Tes names one:
Tesfalem Waldyes: I remember one time while we were attending the African Union summit, the heads of state summit, it was rainy. So the roof, in some parts of the roof, it leaks water down. So it was a very big embarrassment at that time, because it was new, just like two years after inaugurated. So the Chinese scrambled to cover that one.
And then there were the far more serious allegations of a different kind of leak: that Chinese hackers had gotten into African Union headquarters computer systems, and uploaded caches of information, including audio recordings, each night for five years, starting in 2012, sending them to China. The Chinese government has denied this happened. But the African Union got its own servers, and now encrypts all of its electronic communications.
The African Union brings together the 55 African states. It represents a population almost as big as China’s – 1.3 billion people, and a land mass more than three times bigger than China or the United States. The African Union’s charter lists among its goals – achieving greater political and economic integration and unity among African countries, and working for democracy, human rights, development, and peace.
Tesfalem Waldyes: Yes. The Peace and Security Council of the African Union is the most effective organization at the African Union. So all the other organs should step up and follow the example of the Peace and Security Council, to bring long-lasting solutions for the Africans’ consistent problem(s).
One of those problems is climate change. Africa is expected to be hit hard by it – to get hotter, faster, challenging African countries’ ability to feed their populations, possibly prompting migration and conflict in the face of dwindling resources.
How China and other investors build power projects in Africa could have a big impact here on climate change. China’s a global leader in solar and wind energy, with not a lot of it being done in Africa yet, relative to other power projects. China’s got lots of experience building dams too. Dams have their own environmental issues, but at least they don’t emit greenhouse gases. And most of China’s energy projects being built in Africa now are dams. But China’s also built plenty of coal and natural gas plants in Africa, as have other investors.
Chinese investors have also long been active on the agricultural front in Africa, as have Indians. An Indian researcher I met up with in New Delhi, Veda Vaidyanathan, with the Institute of Chinese Studies there, says she got interested in the subject because, about a decade ago, Indian investors:
(Sound of traffic and passersby in New Delhi)
Veda Vaidyanathan: …were buying up land in Ethiopia, and they were turning into first-time farmers. And I thought that was pretty fascinating. That story led me to read more about what India is doing in Africa. And anybody who’s doing anything on Africa can’t ignore what China’s doing in Africa.
Veda ended up doing her PhD work on Indian and Chinese investments in Africa, especially in agriculture.
Veda Vaidyanathan: So there’s a lot of similarity. The difference – until around two or three years, I would have said that the Indian focus has been capacity building. But of late, you have the Chinese putting in a lot of funds and a lot of thought into also building capacity in Africa.
Veda has done specific research on huge Chinese farms in Zambia:
Veda Vaidyanathan: The first Chinese state-owned farm in Zambia, which was bought in 1994, around 3,600 hectares.
That’s almost 9,000 acres – nearly 14 square miles. And in 2019, a Chinese construction company bought another farm, almost the same size.
Veda Vaidyanathan: And according to them, it falls under the ambit of the Belt & Road Initiative. And they’re going to turn it into a symbol of China-Africa agricultural cooperation in Zambia.
China’s agricultural efforts in Zambia have taken flak over the years, from Zambians. I was there just after an election in 2011 turfed out a president thought to be too close to China. At the time, there were complaints that the Chinese came in, kept to themselves on their farms, and undercut the local market. But Veda was impressed with what she’s seen more recently on the ground:
Veda Vaidyanathan: They started building in 2009, they finished in 2012. Since then they’ve trained over 1700 small scale, small-holder farmers. They give equipment like tractors and things like that to local communities. And local communities learn how to not only work those tractors, but also change spare parts and maintain these machinery. And then they have scientists from China who are learning how to increase the yield and productivity of local land.
A fair question might be – is this helping Zambian farmers do their own farming better, or training them to work on increasingly efficient Chinese farms in Zambia? Is Chinese investment in Zambia, overall, including running copper mines, transferring skills to Zambians, so they can run the mines themselves, down the line? There’s a question about who’s going to be controlling the mines anyway, because Zambia is struggling to pay its high debt to China, and Chinese creditors are said to be angling to take control of Zambia’s copper mines if Zambia can’t repay its debt on time. Zambia already failed to make a debt payment to its European Eurobond creditors in mid-November 2020, making it the first African country to default since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Zambia’s concerns that its debt to China could cost it a copper mine or more, echoes what happened three years earlier, when Sri Lanka couldn’t pay its debt on a port project, and ended up giving China a 99-year lease of that port. That sent shock waves around the world. In Africa, the East African coastal nation of Tanzania turned down a loan from China that would have put a port there up for collateral in the same way.
Alemayehu Geda: Bottom line is, we Africans don’t have a strategy on how to deal with them, with the Chinese. But the Chinese do have that.
This is Alemayehu Geda, an economics professor at Addis Ababa University.
Alemayehu Geda: There are some sectors where we don’t have the expertise to negotiate with them, to follow up the implementation, and make sure that the project at the end of the day brings about a return larger than the cost of borrowing.
There are two very different ways of looking at Chinese loans in Africa. And they’re not mutually exclusive. One is that these help poor countries leap-frog forward. The other, is that China is setting debt traps in at least some places, using the infrastructure itself, or sometimes the commodities the infrastructure produces, like oil, as collateral if the borrower can’t repay the loan. Wherever you come down on this, it’s fair to say that Chinese lenders are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. Like many Western countries that have given similar loans before in Africa, China’s state lenders expect to profit, to throw business to Chinese companies, and to gain stature and strategic positions in Africa. China’s loans often have higher interest rates and shorter payback periods than those from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
So, something I’ve heard more than once while covering Chinese activities around the world is – you’d better know what you want, when you come to the table, because the Chinese know what they want. Ethiopia’s government wants a better life for its 110 million people. So it’s taken at least $13 billion in loans from China, out of its total $29 billion external debt. Economist Alemayehu Geda, thinks it could be even more:
Alemayehu Geda: It’s difficult to get those figures, because it’s not transparent. But my estimate is $16 to $19 of the $29 billion belongs to them.
Mary Kay Magistad: That’s hefty.
Alemayehu Geda: Yeah. Huge. Huge. Therefore, if you misbehave – because the Chinese ambassador says Ethiopia shouldn’t allow for any interference in its economic policy. He said that. And you know exactly what he means.
They’re talking about US interference, he says. That prompts a question from Tes:
Tesfalem Waldyes: I have heard the Chinese saying something related about election. Especially, they always say that we don’t interfere in the internal politics of Ethiopia and like that. But they just mentioned that one, and it’s quoted.
Alemayehu Geda: The PM, Abiy, has really to be careful, and carefully manage the two groups. It looks like they are competing not only over Ethiopia, but over the whole region – Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somaliland, South Sudan. It’s the whole region. It’s part of the Silk and Road. So it is high time, he requires skill to navigate delicately through this trade. And he cannot do it by himself.
Alemayehu thinks Abiy should listen more to Ethiopia’s economists, like himself, and less to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the US government. He’s not a flat-out fan of everything China’s doing in Ethiopia, but neither does he think full-speed privatization is the best way forward for a country where almost a quarter of the population still lives in poverty.
Another Ethiopian economist, Getachew Alemu, agrees.
Getachew Alemu: Essentially, I see the Ethiopian economy as an economy that still needs huge public investment. Our markets are very hierarchical, very traditional, fragmented. So even if we wish to have a market-driven economy, we don’t have the markets yet. As an economist, I subscribe to a market-based approach. But we have to create the markets. So the government still has a lot to get engaged in, in the economy.
Getachew Alemu: In terms of power, a large proportion of our farmers don’t have any access to the grid. The same with water supply and basic sanitation services. And also, agriculture support system is not there yet. Our farmers are not connected to the markets generally.
And, he says, China deserves credit for having come in early to fund some of those efforts, at a time when many Western investors found Ethiopia – and Africa in general – to be too risky.
Getachew Alemu: Economies like the Ethiopian economy are considered to be frontier markets for capital markets in the West, because of the high risk involved in the market, and the challenges around it. So although Western capital was considering Africa and Ethiopia as frontier markets, China was actually really courageous enough to get involved in such a market. So it really helped us. We used to have a huge backlog of demand for infrastructure. We didn’t have the finance to finance it, and push our economy forward. So Chinese capital came as a savior for us.
(Kids shout “China! China!, followed by sound in village)
I heard this a lot as I went around rural Tigray months before the conflict with the government erupted. These village kids also wanted to show off what they’d been learning in school:
(Kids count to 10 in English, then recite the English alphabet)
Tes tells me, when rural kids in Ethiopia see a foreigner, they often call out “China, China,” because those are the foreigners they’ve seen here, building roads, putting up poles for electric lines, building the Tekeze dam a decade ago – which now provides electricity, fish from the reservoir, and convenience for local villagers in Tigray.
(Sound of water from water point in Addis Alem village)
In this village Addis Alem, women and kids gather to fill yellow plastic jerrycans with water – coming out of one faucet in the village’s one waterpoint – a luxury, comparatively speaking.
Mamitay Charkos: (Speaks in Tigrinya)
This woman, Mamitay Charkos, says she used to spend half a day walking to get water from the closest river. Now, pipes from the reservoir bring water here – most of the time. Village women fill up their jerrycans, load them onto donkeys – if they have them – and head home. That’s great, she says, but:
Mamitay Charkos (Speaks in Tigrinya)
The water is rationed, and the pipes often break or get clogged. In fact, while we’re there, the water slows to a trickle and stops. Some of those waiting will have to come back.
Water is life here, and climate change has not helped. This part of Ethiopia was already one of the hardest hit by a drought that caused crops to fail, and people to starve in the 1984-85 famine.
Droughts are coming more often now. But another Chinese dam is now being built near Tigray’s capital, Mekelle.
(Sound of traveling in car)
Driving in from a steep hill above, you can see the contours of a dam that will help provide water to more than 300,000 people in Mekelle, instead of having to drill down hundreds of feet to find it:
Mary Kay Magistad: From what I understand, because we just talked to the Mekelle water office, and they said they only have about half as much water as they need, right now. How much is this going to help close that gap?
Hagos Bayru: After three years, the project will be functional, and the Mekelle people, the problem of scarcity of the water is solved.
MKM: It will be enough to make up for the water they do not have now?
MKM: That’s a big deal.
HB: Yeah. (Laughs)
(Sound at dam site, occasional truck goes by)
This is Hagos Bayru. He’s an Ethiopian hydro-electric engineer, working with the Chinese team that’s building this dam.
Hagos Bayru: We took experience from the Chinese, how to design the dam, how to grout the foundations of the dam, what kind of materials we were going to use.
Mary Kay Magistad: That will change the way you do dams here in the future?
HB: Yeah, we will change the dams for next time. We will do everything through the experience of the Chinese.
Chinese expertise helps, he says, though Ethiopian engineers like himself already knew a fair bit about building dams. What really helps is the Chinese loan that’s covering about 80 percent of the cost of building this dam. The water from the dam will also help Mekelle’s new Chinese-built industrial park. We go to see how it’s doing.
Mary Kay Magistad: So we’re at the gate of the Industrial Zone. We just got a pretty thorough frisking. The guard came into our car to look in the back to make sure there was nothing there that was dangerous. It seems to be part of life in Tigray – getting frisked and stopped and asked to look in your bag.
TW: So, the Customs Office, the banks, the state-owned bank is here, so all the logistics and everything is given in one area. So let us go to talk to the manager of the Mekelle Industrial Park.
Goitom Gebrekidan is the general manager here.
(Sound of going up metal steps, emerging onto roof)
Goitom Gebrekidan: I think this is a good view.
Mary Kay Magistad: This is a good view!
He takes us up to the roof of the one-stop office, to get a panoramic view of the industrial park. Below, young women workers laugh and chat as they carry big sheets of plywood on their backs. Already, Goitom says, there are 3500 workers here. And it’ll go up to 20,000 at full capacity. There are Indian companies here, making t-shirts and leggings, a Romanian-Bangladesh joint venture, and Chinese companies, setting up.
Mary Kay Magistad: So what kind of impact do you think this will have on the local economy?
Goitom Gebrekidan: It’s a good boost for the economy, because for example, I am talking about 20,000 people, only the operators.
Twenty thousand workers need food, housing, transportation. That’s good for the local economy too. And there are two new access roads.
Goitom Gebrekidan:, One to the city, the second one to the airport. The big one. Straight to the airport.
He says water from the dam will be a big help for the industrial park. At full capacity, he says, it will be using about 10 gallons of water a second. Already, he says, the park uses Indian technology to recycle all wastewater – something we also saw at the Adama Industrial Park.
Tesfalem Waldyes: But we heard that the Chinese are very surprised when they see such treatment plants for the water, and like that. They say, ‘why do you spend this much money for this thing? You will develop in the future.’
Goitom Gebrekidan: Yeah, they are surprised. They know this is very undeveloped.
TW: So the Chinese don’t think that such big infrastructure for water treatment…
GG: The life of our people is very necessary. But they think that – they assume that they are poor, so they don’t need anything. They need only food. So pollution, everything, they don’t consider. But we are considering at the start point.
(Sound of road construction)
In another part of Mekelle, on this particular day, a Chinese road construction team, with Ethiopian workers, is paving and smoothing a wide road, with room for railway tracks in the middle. It’s meant to connect Mekelle directly with Djibouti, helping goods from the industrial park get to Djibouti’s port, and be exported more quickly. But when we’re there in early 2020, the railway is only about two-thirds done, and construction has stopped. A local official tells us there are financing problems.
(Sound of scraping and smoothing fresh asphalt)
We stop to chat with a man in a loose white shawl and sandals, walking with his donkey. His name is Halefom Hadish. He looks weathered for his 46 years:
Halefom Hadish: (Speaks in Tigrinya)
He says he’s happy about this road. It’s helping to develop the city. And it’s making his life easier. He can use it to bring milk, from his cattle, into the city.
Halefom Hadish: (Speaks in Tigrinya)
Tesfalem Waldyes (translating): Previously, I was carrying all my goods, all what I produce, by donkeys to the city. But now, after the road is constructed, I will transport it by car. Even the goods which I buy from the city, I’ll also use taxis to brought it to my place.
Halefom says Chinese investment has helped his family in other ways, too. His 19-year-old daughter is now working at the industrial park.
Halefom Hadish: (Speaks in Tigrinya)
Tesfalem Waldyes (translating): She was sitting idly in the house for a long time. But now, after she started work at the industrial park, first, it gives her a relief for her mind, because she’s now working there. Second, she started saving some money in her account, so it’s benefitting her.
It’s this kind of transformation of lives that can happen with investments and infrastructure done well, that excites Daniel Mekonen, the deputy commissioner of Tigray’s Investment Commission. He says he saw what can happen when he visited the Chinese city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong – a place that was once a collection of fishing villages, and 40 years later is a cosmopolitan city of millions of people, and a tech and innovation hub:
Daniel Mekonen: Shenzhen, 40 years back, it was a fisher society. Now it’s becoming an industrial city. I like! Not only Tigray, not only Mekelle. Addis! Ethiopia. Not only Addis, Nairobi, every city of Africa, every city of the world to be as Shenzhen.
But – the future has a way of throwing curveballs. And Tigray’s future cooperation with China, and plans for prosperity, are on hold for the moment, as it clashes with the federal government.
That’s a curveball for China, too, in its plans to have an economic and strategic presence in the Horn of Africa. And Ethiopia has, of late, been kind of a showcase country for Chinese investments. But, over time, African enthusiasm about such investments – has been tempered, in some places, by experience:
Luke Patey: In Sudan, in the early 2000s, this was the showcase country, that Chinese oil investment would bring peace, that Chinese infrastructure would develop the country.
This is Luke Patey. He’s the author of “The New Kings of Crude: China, India and the Global Struggle for Oil in Sudan and South Sudan.”
Luke Patey: And what happened – not the Chinese fault, of course, but the Chinese didn’t solve it. There was civil war – multiple civil wars. Sudan hasn’t developed. Now, you have the Janjaweed that were militias in Darfur, of course, displacing and killing civilian populations. They’re now in charge of the country to a large degree. So there wasn’t a happy ending to China’s investments in Sudan.
A huge question for China’s New Silk Road is how much of a happy ending, or at least a promising beginning and a good head start, it will bring to dozens of countries around the world that have signed on to be part of it. Luke’s new book, “How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions,” questions how much there will be a happy ending on China’s terms, in Africa, or in general:
Luke Patey: The reason why China ultimately will struggle, in Africa and in other Belt and Road projects around the world, is because in order to get what it wants, which is offshoring capacity of heavy industries, and building its reputation, and building the legitimacy of its model overseas, it needs to also give something back to these economies. So if you want to build your developmental model, and you’re coming in with tied loans that demand that all the finance or the vast majority of it, be used for Chinese companies and Chinese exports, in the long run, I don’t think you’re going to win actually many friends, because they’re going to resent that, if African governments and companies don’t start to capture the value created from these economic activities.
That said, Luke argues that Chinese investment has done something important for Africa:
Luke Patey: China demonstrates to the world that there’s not only conflict and poverty in Africa, there’s also opportunities for trade and investment. And African governments, I think, need to milk that for as long as they can, in attracting other investors.
All around the world as I’ve been working on this series, I’ve found that places hungry for investment have welcomed China’s, even while saying bluntly that if the US or other investors had shown an interest, they would have been at least as welcomed too. That could still present an opportunity for the Biden Administration.
But here’s another curveball for China. At home, its leaders have plans: a five-year plan, a 10-year plan, a 30-year plan. And at home, China’s leaders can make sure everyone’s getting behind the plan. But on the New Silk Road, they’re finding, not everyone has the same goals, not everyone wants to get in line. And everything is dynamic.
Parag Khanna: Instead of the Cold War system, where you have to choose one side or the other, what countries are doing today is multi-alignment. They’re actively building the strongest possible relations, most beneficial to them with the United States, with China, with the European Union, with India, with Russia, with Japan, and quite frankly, everyone. And that is what benefits them. So unlike colonialism, where they were colonies and pawns, now, countries are being much smarter and saying ‘we will not be caught in this situation.’
This is Parag Khanna. He’s a global strategy adviser and author of books including “The Future is Asian” and “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization.” Parag is a US citizen, born in India, now living in Singapore, who’s traveled widely on China’s New Silk Road and beyond. And he sees a future where Asia – with 60 percent of the world’s population – rises to the fore – and everyone gets more connected with each other, including Asia to Africa, and not just through China:
Parag Khanna: I think that what all of all of this comes down to is agency. At the end of the day, what Beijing and Washington are both missing and always miss, and what superpowers and empires in general, historically tend to miss, is that those lesser states in the system, those swing states, middle powers, small states, whatever they are, have agency. And they have a lot more confidence than they did before. And the more the global system becomes a geopolitical marketplace of multiple competing powers, the more agency these smaller countries can actually have, because they get to practice this multi-alignment very actively. And therefore, if you want to win what you think is a bipolar struggle, you actually have to be much more active in courting these countries rather than giving them false choices.
China’s Belt & Road Initiative is changing the world – just not always in the way China’s leaders wanted or expected, and not only with China in the driver’s seat.
But some good things have happened along the way. Years of big power neglect of developing countries has given way to new surges of investment and engagement – from Europe, India, Japan, and the United States. And it’s caused regional groupings in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Arctic, to figure out ways to better stick together for their common interests – which will likely be even more needed, as economies recover from the hit they’ve taken from COVID-19.
But all this means that China may not get all it wants from its big global bet, economically or strategically. The future doesn’t always move in a straight line, and there’s already a lot of push-back already to China’s vision of a world connected under China’s leadership.
And here’s a twist. For all its imperfections, the Belt & Road Initiative may actually leave as its legacy, a more multi-polar world – with states having more infrastructure, more investment, and more options than before, allowing them to better make their own decisions about what kind of future they want, and how to get there. And that, certainly, could be considered a win-win.
That’s our journey On China’s New Silk Road. Thanks for coming along.
Thanks too, to my partner journalist in Ethiopia, Tesfalem Waldyes. Our editor is Dave Rummel. Our sound designer for this episode is Jennie Cataldo. Our executive producer is Christine Brandt.
On China’s New Silk Road is a production of the Global Reporting Centre, a nonprofit group that teaches, practices and promotes innovation in global journalism. Peter Klein is the GRC’s founder. Philippe LeBillon, a Global Reporting Centre partner and geography professor at the University of British Columbia, provided valuable input for this series.
On China’s New Silk Road was made possible by generous funding from Humanity United, and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. You can find photos, transcripts and more at globalreportingcentre.org, and essays at PRX’s The World, which has been running long excerpts of this series. We’re grateful to them, and to you too, for listening.