China-Africa: The Great Renewal


It is not common for a senior Chinese government official to meet an African leader trained in China and able to speak Han Chinese. But, Li Keqiang, prime minister of China, last week met, in Addis Abeba, a head of state who studied in the same college that he did.

President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) not only studied philosophy and economics at the Peking University in the mid-1980s, where Prime Minister Keqiang spent the same academic year studying law, but was also chairman of the Association for International Students. Premier Keqiang, simultaneously, was chairman of the Chinese Youth League of the Peking University, which was first established in 1898. A year before his appointment to the premiership in 2013, Keqiang was praised by the New York Times as “China’s best educated leader.”

The University both leaders spent their formative years at is considered as the pre-eminent academic establishment in China with, “a long tradition of liberal teaching”, according to The New York Times.

Although the two leaders had no knowledge of each other back in their student years, they met on Tuesday, May 6, 2014, at the Jubilee Palace on Menelik II Avenue – a day before the Prime Minister concluded his first stop in Ethiopia, as part of his four nations’ tour in Africa.

“It’s my first trip two Africa after becoming Prime Minister,” Keqiang told diplomats accredited to the African Union (AU) and Ethiopian government officials who turned out to listen to his policy statement on China-Africa relations, held on Monday at the AU conference hall. “I was only in Egypt five years ago.”

Keqiang’s first address to Africa’s diplomats was received with enthusiasm. Not only has he declared the “great renewal of China and Africa is unstoppable”, but too he pledged to provide Africa with an additional 10 billion dollars in credit facility to the 20 billion dollars his predecessors offered five years ago.

This is a fund earmarked largely to bridge the public infrastructure gap on the continent, but also to support industrialisation, urbanisation and agricultural modernisation, the Prime Minister told an otherwise delighted audience. This comes without the price to policy space that some African leaders, including Ethiopia, always argue for. Keqiang assured Africa that his country’s desperately needed economic assistance “won’t be tied to political strings, and is based on mutual respect”.

Analysts see this as part of China’s “clear and comprehensive” strategy to use soft power to advance its economic interests in Africa through promoting the “Chinese Model”.

Valerie Niquet, a China analyst and professor teaching at the prestigious French CID-Ecole, writes – “Beijing is employing a south-south ‘third-world’ form of discourse, based on constantly re-invoked past common struggle against all forms of imperialism”. It is an insight reinforced by a policy statement Keqiang made in Addis Abeba last week. Friends who shed tears together in the past are more likely to remain strong, than those who shared laughter, he said.

Such is a view equally shared by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, who sees the “best days of vibrant partnership with China” ahead. His administration has signed bilateral agreements, no less than 16, including three treaties, four grants and loans.

The loan agreements were to finance a three billion dollar loan the construction of a railway line between Djibouti and Ethiopia; and an optical fibre over-ground wire (OPGW) project, the Dire Dawa-Dewelle road project and financial support for economic and technical corporations. The latter will be part of the five billion dollar fund, which Keqiang declared last week is to be allotted for economic cooperation with Africa, where his country has 25 billion dollars in foreign direct investment and 250 billion dollars in trade transactions. Close to 1.5 billion dollars of this is invested in Ethiopia, while Ethiopian shares over a billion dollars in trade with China.

The optimism in China’s engagement is perhaps demonstrated in no other way than the inauguration of Ethiopia’s first expressway – from Addis Abeba to Adama – whose largest portion of nearly seven billion Birr was financed by the Chinese EX-IM Bank. On the same afternoon that Keqiang addressed the AU, he was driven to the toll gate near Tulu Dimtu, close to three kilometres off the main road in Kality, where, along with Hailemariam, he opened the six-lane 84.7km expressway. It was designed and built by the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC)and consulted by Beijing Expressway Supervision (BES).

The road will be managed by the Ethiopian Roads Authority (ERA) for the meanwhile, however, until operational management is transferred to a new autonomous enterprise, soon to be established, accountable to the Ministry of Transport (MoT). Although the establishment of an autonomous agency to manage toll roads seems an absolute certainty, its proposed mandates to build new toll roads in addition to their management has already proven to be prone to dispute. This is because the construction mandate is one that the ERA officials loath sharing.

The ERA’s officials believe that the country is inexperienced in the management and administration of the toll road and operating machinery, and the CCCC will continue to provide advisory services to ERA for some years to come. An agreement is expected to be signed. The expressway has seven toll stations to collect money from drivers, 48 gates on the toll road and three checkpoints to thwart cargo overloading on freight vehicles.

The expressway will be officially functional in three weeks and toll fees are calculated separately for personal passenger vehicles, freight vehicles and commercial passenger carriage vehicles, a senior official at the ERA who requested anonymity disclosed to Fortune. However, it is very likely for automobiles to get charged a rate of 50 cents a kilometre and big trucks one Birr, according to this official.

Hailemariam hopes the road will reduce the problem of trade logistics that Ethiopia faces on its main artery to the Port of Djibouti, and he promised for the road to continue up to Djibouti.

It was a promise made based on pledges Keqiang made in his meeting with President Mulatu the following day. He promised to deliver support to Ethiopia for the construction of dams and roads, as well as manufacturing plants. For a country whose debut in Ethiopia was in the mid-1860s in building the first road that paved a military expedition by Colonial Britain against Emperor Tewodros, such is a promise within the realm of possibility.

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