Saturday’s (11 October) New York Times carried an article on The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. For anyone familiar with China, the name rings familiar: what China’s government is striving to achieve is officially called “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”, but a better translation of Zhonghua minzu de weida fuxing is in fact “the grand renaissance of the Chinese race/nation”. The article describes forced wage deductions from workers to buy bonds supporting the cost of the dam and says reactions are mixed: some are unhappy while others seem enthused by the hope of development.
The article mentions that the dam will partly be built with a Chinese loan, but by an Italian company, Salini (thanks to Paulette Nonfodji for pointing this out). This is unusual and makes me wonder why the Chinese government agreed to provide the loan without the usual requirement for procurement in China. Perhaps there are Chinese subcontractors or perhaps the Ethiopian government has pushed back. In any case, this is something of a corrective to the excessive focus on the role of China in controversial development projects in Africa, making it seem as though China deliberately exports predatory development just to pursue its own ends. In fact, an increasing number of Western, Brazilian, Russian, Korean and other companies are rejoining the ranks of global dam builders now that there is financing to be had from the World Bank and elsewhere, and the projects are beginning to look commercially viable.
For some time, various observers of China’s overseas engagements, including myself, have thought that if there was one country that could be said to be emulating the “Chinese model”, that’s Ethiopia: a strong developmental state that suppresses opposition, engages in surveillance and media censorship, and uses extralegal coercion when wanting to advance its goals. Perhaps it also produces the type of nationalist-developmentalist discourse that China does, and perhaps it is just as effective. Of course, there is nothing “Chinese” about this in any cultural sense: other developmental states like South Korea have done this in the past. But then again, perhaps there aren’t that many similar examples either. And it is certainly China’s example, and Chinese investment capital, that help the propagation of this approach now rather than in the 1970s. Yet, as this case shows, attracting Chinese capital may involve displays of friendliness towards China (and of annoyance towards Western human rights concerns) but does not need to result in a weaker hand when it comes to balancing Chinese and other interests.
We shall see to what extent other governments adopt this approach and how far they get with it. There is no want of candidates: Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Hungary, and some South American states come to mind. Interestingly, African states less so.