Conflict and Fragility

Policy briefs

‘Designed in Ethiopia’ and ‘Made in China’

08 Feb 2021 - 12:32
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Sino-Ethiopian technology collaboration in South-South relations

This policy brief provides an examination of China’s rise in relation to its African partners. It takes into account geopolitical concerns, but homes in on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its means of expanding into Africa. It examines the role of the Digital Silk Road in the use of Chinese artificial intelligence and technology transfers on surveillance and the risks of repression. The brief aims to move beyond the politicised narratives surrounding Chinese involvement in Africa by testing them against practical initiatives on the ground. It examines Ethiopia, particularly its burgeoning tech hub known as the ‘Sheba Valley’, in order to understand China’s role in development in African countries. Ethiopia is a critical case because of:

  1. the country’s strong relations with China, leading Ethiopia to model its developmental state model on the Chinese one and incentivising civil servants to learn from the Chinese experience;
  2. Ethiopia’s attempt to develop its relatively advanced ICT hub (the Sheba Valley) in collaboration with China’s Shenzhen-based ICT hub;
  3. Ethiopia’s historically heavy surveillance and repressive practices, in part modelled on China’s practice of prioritising development over democratic reform.

The brief finds that Chinese involvement in Ethiopia is significant, not only for its implications for Ethiopia as a major regional player, but also for the new approaches to South-South cooperation that China is showcasing in this regional diplomatic centre. There are no clear indications that China’s relations with Ethiopia are guided by political motives to spread any ideological interpretation or diffuse surveillance capabilities. Ethiopia’s partnership with China may be better understood as a continuation of a longer ongoing trend rather than a novel development in Ethiopia’s surveillance model. While there are risks associated with Chinese engagement in ICT in Ethiopia, the value generated through the partnerships and business models it develops are tangible, domestically appreciated, and frequently not a Chinese centrally orchestrated push towards surveillance.

As a consequence, an alarmist response failing to recognise the motivations of Ethiopian actors to engage with Chinese initiatives is unlikely to gain significant traction. Rather than stressing the risks, a more positive narrative highlighting alternative opportunities for ICT collaboration with European states may be a more effective way of positioning the EU in the debate and shifting relationships.

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