China likes to claim that Africa, and more specifically, Ethiopia is their new china (a colloquial term for friend), just like Europe claimed many years ago. Ethiopia has a large, labour-hungry population. It has an agricultural society that’s just yearning for industry and is a sound investment overseas for China.
In many ways, Ethiopia is meant to be China’s example country in Africa and their new form of imperialism, infrastructure, is traded for control of said colonialism. Ethiopia’s leaders are happy to have a new world power to play off against the West and Russia.
In return, for a few billion in investment, the People’s Republic of China expect to have bought a supportive vote in the UN, a debtor to buy their goods and a future population to work in their their factories.
In short, China’s china.
For the most part, this has all been welcomed by the Ethiopian government. Investment is investment, and this is not a country that can easily say no to infrastructure development. By allowing tacit Chinese control, Ethiopia has seen a railway built to the coast in Djibouti,
a highway around their major city and hundreds of factories ranging from cement to shoes.
Every tall building you pass in the cities, the taxi driver will turn and say “China” without being asked. There are clear reasons to take part in the promise of the East as they are the ones writing the cheques, but it’s hard to say that it is going entirely to plan. Like many attempts to colonize Africa, the new Chinese colonisers are not exactly endearing themselves to the local people. Africa is an incredibly complicated continent, and few places more so than Ethiopia.
Being from the wrong ethnicity, religion, or clan is the difference between friendship and hate or even life and death, in Africa.
As a result, it appears the Ethiopians absolutely hate the Chinese who are living there and they will mention it without prompting. There’s open hostility in their neighbourhoods and a taxi driver even laughingly refers to Chinese as flies.
When you walk through Chinatown in Addis Ababa, there is racial tension spilling over into the street because in the eyes of the local people, Ethiopia is a nation that prides itself on never having being colonized. China’s presence here feels like the new threat, like the Falasha, they’re outsiders that don’t fit in here and in African society, not fitting in is the worst thing you can do.
The rules are rigid here. Assimilation is a must.
Despite having over eighty distinct cultures, it it is a kind of true multi-culturalism, a system which they refer to as an Ethnic Federation, and have divided the country into regions that are created around and often named after the minority with the strongest control in that area.
But as virtually all of Ethiopia is in use, expansion for one people means taking land from another. One state’s glory is another state’s loss.
Ethnic clashes have led to a situation where Ethiopia is working to resettle nearly two million internal refugees. For most people, particularly those with little education, things that don’t fit into their system are a threat to it and the incoming Chinese workers don’t believe in the local religion or follow their ways of life and they have no tribal connections. They have no historic land.
The buildings that the Chinese are bringing to Addis Ababa are as tall as anything anybody in Ethiopia has ever seen before and they’re injecting these condos and office towers onto the landscape like this is any other massive Chinese city.
But for all the wealth they’ve brought, Ethiopians are not seeing it as a gift, but rather as a change that they don’t want. A threat to the culture. This is why no matter how much money the Chinese sink into the country, they’re ultimately going to fail here…
A perfect case in point are the donkeys, which are vital to the Ethiopian way of life as 83% of the country relies on a donkey, at some point during their day. There is no country on this planet that has more of them than here. No matter where you go, from downtown of the biggest city to countryside fields, you’re going to see a donkey:
They do everything.
They bring water.
They haul crops.
They carry stone.
For many families, owning a donkey is the difference between poverty and complete destitution.
Yet, despite being the most reliable worker in the entire country, donkeys get no love as they are considered unclean by both major religions, Christianity and Islam. Nobody here would ever eat a donkey even if they were starving to death. They wouldn’t even touch the meat and donkeys are not to be slaughtered under any circumstances. If a donkey dies in Ethiopia, they leave it for the hyenas…
But in China, donkeys are a cash crop, because it seems there is no animal in Africa that the Chinese won’t consume in some weird manner, on the back of a rumour or myth… and ever since a sham alternative medicine company spread the idea that donkey skin was the new wonder drug, millions in of Chinese believe it can cure everything from the common cold to insomnia.
As more donkey miracle “medicines” flooded the Chinese market, more people started to believe that they must be effective because if they weren’t effective, why would there be so many on the market? As a result of this self fulfilling prophecy, global donkey prices have skyrocketed and donkey herds have been slaughtered in such numbers that entire countries are starting to feel the pinch.
When you can get that much for an old donkey, it’s hard not to sell it, and with the world’s second largest economy and a sixth of the world’s people, when China sneezes, we all catch cold.
So, in the eyes of the Chinese company coming to Ethiopia to set up a slaughterhouse, they viewed their presence here as a win-win because this was an untapped market and the number one country for donkeys. A safe investment in a country that their Chinese government had bought and paid for.
Everyone would benefit and farmers would get more for their haram donkeys than they’d ever dreamed possible, local trucking and infrastructure funding would increase, and the government would get vital tax dollars. They’d even bring in their own butchers from China which would be against both local religions, but, out of sight, out of mind…
Capitalism at its finest had worked across Africa, and it would work here. Right? Yet for all their sweet words, the local people just heard foreigners slaughtering donkeys and it took less than a year before it was banned.
The story of Addis Ababa’s first slaughterhouse is the story of all colonization in Africa:
Despite having nearly endless capital, those Chinese investors trying to build that factory failed because they repeated the same typical mistakes that had happened all throughout colonization’s history. They imagined that their capital was worth more than the local culture and assumed that if they controlled those on top, they also controlled those on the bottom.
In the case of the slaughterhouse, they made mistakes from the very start. First, insensitively, to save a bit of money they built on an old factory that had been burnt to the ground in an ethnic protest just a year before. They failed to imagine that to the community around their factory walls, it was like seeing blasphemy built on the back of their political frustration.
Donkey meat instead of change and before long the calls began to burn it down too. Rumours spread faster than calm and some Oromo nationalists starting asking if the government had done it as an insult? Did the Tigray and Amhara do this to undermine their culture and was this their response to the original protests?
Both Christians and Muslim Oromo, rarely united in their anger, came together to pressure the local government who in the interest of stopping the inevitable riot that was to come, had regional officials declare it illegal.
After spending five years getting a permit to build, and another two putting up the walls, they were legally closed in under a year, but the Chinese company wasn’t willing to give in that easily, so they pressured their embassy to lean on the national government. In the Chinese system, a factory that has bribed the right people is not a factory that gets shut down and Ethiopia was supposed to be China’s China, so surely a little political muscle and a little more grease could get it reopened, as per normal? After all, what were all these billions in infrastructure projects for if not to buy enough goodwill to run a single donkey slaughterhouse?
However, before they could learn the hard way about how far the goodwill their government bought could take them, the government collapsed. The bureaucrats who China had come to rely on for decades, the men who had benefited from and remembered the bribes, all gone.
While more in the new administration would quickly fill their shoes, this was unquestionably a hard reset. The donkey show was over and Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister had no interest in his first act being in also selling out his base to the Chinese. To the contrary, he used the closure of the slaughterhouse as good PR and in 2018, Ethiopia even started making the first steps towards safeguarding their herds from skinning, which was effectively meaningless, but politically quite symbolic in order to send a message.
The message, or lesson it seems, is that even if your plan to conquer someone is a clever plan, they’re still going to resent feeling conquered, even if they can do nothing about it, which is why China is not going to see the success they’re hoping for in Ethiopia.
This is more than just a clash of cultures, it is also a misunderstanding of what money can actually buy. Just because to some people a donkey may be unclean, that doesn’t mean you just get to do whatever you want with it.
Africa’s trash or donkeys are NOT your wealth, in Africa… they like their trash the way it is. China cannot buy chinas in Africa.