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It is not exactly known when Ethiopia and China first made contact, but historians suggest that by the time the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was in power, the Chinese were apparently acquainted with Ethiopia. China traded not only with Ethiopia, but also with countries on the East coast of Africa, acquiring elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, and pearls among others.
Even though it seems that Ethiopia and China had early commercial contact, neither of the two countries happened to be interested in establishing diplomatic relations until the twentieth century. Relations between the two countries was said to be strained when China started to support the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) back in 1967. However, history indicates that the two countries formed diplomatic relations in 1970 when China agreed to recognize Eritrea as part of Ethiopia in exchange for Emperor Haile Selassie’s recognition of Taiwan as part of China.
It wasn’t long before the cordial relations between the two started to go sour again after the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 when the Derg started to cozy up to the Soviet Union.
After what seemed like a once-on once-off dating process, China and Ethiopia finally decided to stabilize their relationship which has been growing stronger ever since, so much so that China has today invested over USD 900 million in Ethiopia. The brand new building for the AUC paid for by the Chinese is a prime example of their strong interest in Africa as a whole and Ethiopia in particular. Researches indicate that the country has made commitments worth a staggering USD 75 billion on aid and development projects in Africa and has initiated around 1,700 projects in Africa between 2000 and 2011 alone.
If nothing else, the Chinese have managed to accomplish at least one impressive feat when it comes to Africa—they have made the western world quite uncomfortable.
China’s motives in Africa have been the main point of discussion, especially in the west. Western media have over and over again put the country’s extensive involvement on the continent under intense scrutiny. We can’t blame them though; Africa’s virgin resources and its development potential has not been lost on them and they certainly have taken plenty advantage of the self-esteem issues that most Africans have to avail themselves of a great deal of continent’s resources. Then, along came the Asian giant, with promises and better negotiated deals, which is being highly appreciated. News reports show that in Liberia China has placed millions of dollars at the disposal of the government towards the installation of solar traffic lights in Monrovia and has financed the construction of a malaria prevention center. In Mozambique, Chinese projects include a National School for Visual Arts in Maputo. In Algeria, construction has begun on a multimillion dollar 1,400-seat opera house in the Ouled Fayet suburbs of western Algiers.
China has also sent thousands of doctors and teachers to work in Africa, welcomed many more as students to be educated in China or partake of Chinese language classes abroad and availed the funds for the construction of a continent-wide network of sports stadiums and concert halls.
As wise men say, “All that sparkles is not gold” and some detractors have been heard to assert that many of the cultural and sporting projects across the continent are probably “upfront sweeteners” to win government favor, a “downpayment” for future commercial deals.
It is true that basically no aid is provided without an ulterior motive; the world is just not that nice a place and one would be pretty dense to think it is. The way it goes is ‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, even though Africa hasn’t really started getting its back scratched yet. The Wall Street Journal wrote: “Great powers try to use culture and narrative to create soft power that promotes their national interests, but it’s not an easy sell when the message is inconsistent with their domestic realities …”
China has and is accused of having a bad record when it comes to human rights issues. Most of the time, the country is portrayed in a negative light when it makes the headlines for jailing human rights activists and journalists, and the western media generally shy away from acknowledging the country’s success stories. This is nothing new, but unfortunately the trend has been growing since China took its place as the second biggest economy in the world next to the USA and is poised to take over the top spot in the coming decades. It is a well-known fact that the West’s concern emanates from fears of potentially losing control of access to massive resources. But as a country and continent, we should never forget that all is not always what it seems.
I believe Africa is in a better position than ever to negotiate and make far better deals and should do so with fortitude. We always need to keep the continent’s interest in mind; otherwise we will once again become losers instead of winners in a complicated game.