Ethiopia is among the countries in the horn of Africa facing simultaneous developments lately despite the ongoing war. One of the most striking elements of the discourse about China in Ethiopia is how official governmental narratives highlight the impressive scale of Chinese projects, whether major infrastructure construction of roads and railways or the import of essential goods like vaccines, phones, and clothing, while popular narratives often underline the low quality of these projects and products.
The Ethiopian government often says China’s economic involvement in Ethiopia facilitates the country’s development. Indeed as of 2019, China remained the largest source of foreign investment in Ethiopia.
However, the Chinese government also accounts for almost half of Ethiopia’s external debt, estimated at about 13.7 billion US dollars. Much of this debt is concentrated in major infrastructure projects which are also symbols of Ethiopia’s development, such as the Addis-Djibouti railway.
Interestingly, the China-Ethiopia trade has also dramatically increased over the past two decades, with Chinese exports to Ethiopia estimated at US dollars 2.37 billion in 2019.
In contrast to the official praise, the Ethiopian public is often critical about the quality of these projects, as well as Chinese products sold in Ethiopia.
A popular commentary written by a commentator under the pseudonym of Lalibela, for instance, discuses a Chinese road infrastructure project connecting Gashena to the historic city of Lalibela in Amhara region, known for its underground churches. The project started eight years ago, but has yet to be completed. During that period, the road has already required multiple repairs, suggesting substandard construction.
The author of the post suggests that officials and the community should not remain silent when the quality of the road construction keeps deteriorating. The author includes photos showing a collapsed bridge that was part of the road project.
The famous Addis-Djibouti Railway that links landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti has also faced some media and public scrutiny. A report by the Fana Broadcasting Corporation, a government-affiliated television station, for instance, feautures an interview with Awel Wegris, the deputy transport minister of Ethiopia, who said that in the last three years, the train had stopped working 163 times. He also added that 27 people and 875 animals were injured as a result of the train operations. The report also notes that the railway project has lost over 114 million birr in maintenance and compensation costs.
In addition to infrastructure quality, many popular discussions dissect the quality of Chinese products in a satirical tone. For instance, in a recent Twitter post complaining about Chinese shoe quality, Yordanos Odalo writes that when the sun hits the shoes, they stretch from size 37 to size 40 Another writer claims that Chinese shoes have a lifespan of one month and then poses a question: “Do the Chinese use saliva as shoe glue?” While this post was later removed, a gif has been made out of it:
Public opinion surveys of Africans’ perceptions of China suggests that across the continent citizens associate Chinese products with low quality. These surveys suggests that the quality of Chinese products is the key underlying factor that tarnishes China’s reputation in Africa.
Many Africans assume that the higher quality goods are exported to developed markets, whereas Africa serves as the “dumping ground” for cheaper Chinese goods and lower quality infrastructure. The Chinese government has consistently denied the accusations that they provide inferior services and products to Africa, emphasizing the role of pricing in determining the quality of the goods.
The analysis of Ethiopia’s social media discussions, however, suggest that African citizens are not convinced. From major projects to individual items, Chinese offerings are not met with gratitude but rather with critique, skepticism and humor.
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