Rail line in Ethiopia shows a deeper Chi­nese in­vest­ment

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Kaiman :: re­port­ing from ad­dis ababa, ethiopia

Africa’s past is the mildewed train sta­tion in cen­tral Ad­dis Ababa, where lo­co­mo­tives sit gut­ted and rusted tracks van­ish in the grass. The line was once the great­est in Africa; built by France in the 1910s, it ran more than 450 miles north­east to neigh­bor­ing Dji­bouti, where the desert meets the sea.

Africa’s fu­ture is the new sta­tion a short drive away, a yel­low-and-white ed­i­fice with grand pi­lasters, arched win­dows and a broad flag­stone square. It’s con­nected to a $4-bil­lion, 470-mile-long rail line, the first elec­tri­fied cross-bor­der rail sys­tem in Africa.

The new rail net­work was built by China’s state-owned rail and con­struc­tion firms, which were ea­ger to pro­mote their in­vest­ment in Africa’s fu­ture. Red ban­ners run­ning down the tow­er­ing fa­cade of the new train sta­tion de­clare, in bold Chi­nese char­ac­ters, “Long live Sino-African friend­ship.”

China has de­scribed its rail­road ad­ven­tures in Africa as an ex­er­cise in al­tru­ism.

Yet for China, in­vest­ing in Ethiopia — one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries — is more strate­gic than phil­an­thropic. With U.S. en­gage­ment on the con­ti­nent at a low ebb, eco­nom­i­cally and po­lit­i­cally, China sees an op­por­tu­nity to im­prove trans­porta­tion through the Horn of Africa and make it­self the

dom­i­nant eco­nomic part­ner on a con­ti­nent that is about to see an ex­plo­sion of new cheap la­bor, cell­phone users and ur­ban con­sumers.

For sev­eral decades, China’s African in­vest­ments were aimed pri­mar­ily at cre­at­ing po­lit­i­cal al­lies across the con­ti­nent.

Bei­jing in­vested heav­ily in hearts-and-minds projects such as soc­cer sta­di­ums and hos­pi­tals. But a sig­nif­i­cant change is un­der­way. China now sees Africa as an im­por­tant eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity. It has been pour­ing money into in­fra­struc­ture across the con­ti­nent, and last week it opened its first overseas mil­i­tary base in Dji­bouti.

By 2034, Africa is ex­pected to have 1.1 bil­lion work­ers, the world’s largest work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion, ac­cord­ing to eco­nomic fore­casts. By 2025, the con­ti­nent’s con­sumers will be spend­ing $2 tril­lion a year.

“My vi­sion is, by 2020, Ethiopia’s econ­omy will be among the world’s mi­dlevel economies,” said Mekon­nen Ge­tachew, a project man­ager at the Ethiopian Rail­ways Corp., which over­sees the rail line. “The rail will make ev­ery eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity eas­ier. Our econ­omy will boom.… This rail­way is mak­ing Ethiopia great again!”

The Chi­nese march through Africa has come as U.S. en­gage­ment on the con­ti­nent has been di­aled down to its low­est level in years.

Pres­i­dent Trump has barely men­tioned Africa in his pub­lic state­ments, and his “Amer­ica first” rhetoric, some Africa ex­perts say, is push­ing the con­ti­nent fur­ther into China’s em­brace.

While Chi­nese com­pa­nies have looked to make money in Africa and share with Africans some of the jobs, tax rev­enues, in­fra­struc­ture and spinoff devel­op­ment that go along with new in­vest­ment, the U.S. has fo­cused on im­prov­ing African lives through aid, so­cial pro­grams and con­di­tional loans.

Western com­pa­nies have of­ten been re­luc­tant to par­tic­i­pate in African in­fra­struc­ture projects for fear of over­whelm­ing main­te­nance costs. In many cases, they could sim­ply build new projects more cheaply.

“Amer­i­cans still see Africa as a place where there are a lot of pres­i­dents for life, wars and famines,” said Reuben Brigety, dean at Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity’s El­liott School of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs and a for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to the African Union. “They don’t un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing on the con­ti­nent eco­nom­i­cally and de­mo­graph­i­cally.”

In Ethiopia, the coun­try’s rail ex­ec­u­tives said China seems more at­tuned to Africa’s needs.

“China doesn’t give sim­ple aid,” Ge­tachew said. “They do give loans. You work, and you re­turn back. That’s a good pol­icy. Aid is just mak­ing slav­ery.”

For decades, the Chi­naAfrica re­la­tion­ship was al­most en­tirely trans­ac­tional: China gave African states easy loans, en­abling them to build bridges and sta­di­ums; in re­turn, those states gave China ac­cess to nat­u­ral re­sources, such as oil, tim­ber and nickel, fu­el­ing China’s eco­nomic boom.

But as China’s for­eign pol­icy grows more so­phis­ti­cated — and more am­bi­tious — that era is end­ing, and the re­la­tion­ship is grow­ing much deeper, with ex­tra­or­di­nary im­pli­ca­tions for the con­ti­nent’s fu­ture.

Chi­nese na­tion­als in Africa — once a scat­tered co­hort of of­fi­cials, min­ing ex­ec­u­tives and con­struc­tion crews — are be­ing joined by tourists, peace­keep­ers, poach­ers, sol­diers and small-time en­trepreneurs. To­gether, they are gen­er­at­ing both riches and new po­lit­i­cal clout for Bei­jing and help­ing es­tab­lish China as the world’s new­est su­per­power.

For Ethiopia, China’s in­fra­struc­ture ex­pen­di­tures are an es­sen­tial el­e­ment in plans to emerge from a long cy­cle of drought, poverty, famine and war. The rail­road is a start.

Ethiopian of­fi­cials say the line will even­tu­ally grow into a 3,000-mile rail net­work that stretches across neigh­bor­ing Su­dan, South Su­dan, and Kenya — where China re­cently com­pleted an­other rail­way, for $3.8 bil­lion.

The new Ethiopia-Dji­bouti line’s trains are neari­den­ti­cal copies of the car­riages that tra­versed China be­fore the gov­ern­ment, about a decade ago, be­gan swap­ping them out for high­speed rail. They have the same ram­rod-straight seat backs; the same boil­ing wa­ter dis­pensers in nearly ev­ery car, es­sen­tial for in­stant noo­dles and green tea.

Ethiopia re­lies on Dji­bouti’s ports for 90% of its for­eign trade. But since the old rail­road col­lapsed in 2009 af­ter decades of de­cline, the land­locked coun­try’s bil­lions of dol­lars of im­ports and ex­ports — fuel, cof­fee, live­stock — have had to travel by truck, a three-to-four-day jour­ney along rut­ted, dusty roads.

The new rail line, which will be fully op­er­a­tional by Oc­to­ber, will cut the trip to 12 hours.

“The coaches are very new. It’s elec­tric. It’s very com­fort­able. You en­joy the scenery along the cor­ri­dor,” said Ye­hualaeshet Je­mere, a top of­fi­cial with the Ethiopian Rail­ways Corp. “It’s like a dream come true for us.”

Here in Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia’s cap­i­tal, China is driv­ing an ur­ban re­nais­sance. It has built whole neigh­bor­hoods, a $475-mil­lion light-rail­way sys­tem and even the African Union head­quar­ters, a $200-mil­lion com­plex that dom­i­nates the city’s sky­line. In the coun­try’s hin­ter­lands, it has con­structed sev­eral in­dus­trial parks, an­tic­i­pat­ing a man­u­fac­tur­ing boom.

Bei­jing’s first overseas mil­i­tary base had its of­fi­cial open­ing on Tues­day near the ter­mi­nus of the new rail line in Dji­bouti. The 90-acre com­plex in­cludes hous­ing for thou­sands of sol­diers and berths for com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary ves­sels.

But Bei­jing’s reach al­ready stretches well be­yond Dji­bouti and Ethiopia. China sur­passed the U.S. as Africa’s largest trad­ing part­ner in 2009, and the num­bers con­tinue to climb. (For­eign di­rect in­vest­ment has dropped in re­cent years, along with de­clin­ing global re­source prices.)

China stands to gain tremen­dously from its in­vest­ments. Chi­nese busi­nesses, ham­pered by slow­ing growth at home, are in­creas­ingly treat­ing the con­ti­nent as a ma­jor overseas mar­ket.

In Bei­jing, the po­lit­i­cal will driv­ing such projects ex­tends to the top. Through the “Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive,” launched by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in 2013, China is fund­ing $1 tril­lion of in­fra­struc­ture and trade projects through­out Asia, Europe, the Mid­dle East and Africa. In De­cem­ber 2015, Xi met with African lead­ers in Jo­han­nes­burg, South Africa, and pledged $60 bil­lion for devel­op­ment projects across the con­ti­nent over the next three years.

“Today’s Africa is a con­ti­nent of en­cour­ag­ing and dy­namic devel­op­ment,” he said in a speech. “Such a mo­men­tum of in­de­pen­dent devel­op­ment is un­stop­pable.”

In a Chi­nese-built in­dus­trial park along the new rail line, in a Chi­nese-run fac­tory, thou­sands of em­ploy-

ees of Hua­jian Shoe Co. — all of them Ethiopian — work 13-hour days glu­ing, in­spect­ing and box­ing women’s shoes. Above them hang pro­pa­ganda posters in Chi­nese, English and Amharic, Ethiopia’s na­tional lan­guage, im­plor­ing work­ers to “win honor for the coun­try” and to “ab­so­lutely obey.”

Zhang Huarong, the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, wan­dered through the im­mac­u­late rows of work­ers on an in­spec­tion tour, a crowd of sub­or­di­nates trail­ing be­hind him. “Africa is too poor,” he said. “It needs en­trepreneurs like me to bal­ance out the global econ­omy, so that more peo­ple can live a happy life.”

Zhang was proud of his Ethiopian in­vest­ments. The new rail will knock ship­ping prices from $5,000 per con­tainer to $3,000, he said. And for the cost of one Chi­nese worker, Zhang can hire five Ethiopi­ans. He plans to em­ploy 50,000 within eight years.

“Ethiopia is like China was 40 years ago,” he said. “Even though this place is pretty tough, we think within five or 10 years, its eco­nomic devel­op­ment will be pretty good.”

Ev­ery pair of shoes pro­duced in Hua­jian’s fac­to­ries, in China and Ethiopia, is ex­ported to the U.S.; its clients in­clude the la­bels Tommy Hil­figer, Guess and Lucky.

As the sun set at the fac­tory, about a dozen Ethiopian work­ers lined up in for­ma­tion, clos­ing out the work­day. An Ethiopian man­ager waved his arms, as if con­duct­ing a choir, and to­gether they sang a Chi­nese mil­i­tary an­them from the 1950s.

“Unity is strength. Unity is strength,” they sang in Man­darin. “Open fire on the fas­cists. Bring death to all non­demo­cratic sys­tems.”

Adama, a city of 300,000 peo­ple 60 miles down the rail line from Ad­dis Ababa, is pre­par­ing for a boom — but not ev­ery­one con­sid­ers it progress.

Small blue auto rick­shaws jos­tle for road space with hulk­ing Chi­nese trucks, and rows of half-built con­crete houses stretch up into the plains. At the end of a half-built road is the city’s new train sta­tion — an­other mas­sive ed­i­fice, its in­te­rior cov­ered in dust.

Since con­struc­tion be­gan six years ago, the price of land in Adama has in­creased sev­en­fold to about $140 per square foot, said Sham­bel Worku, the sta­tion’s man­ager.

Yet progress is slow, and lo­cals are suf­fer­ing, high­light­ing the hid­den costs of rapid eco­nomic devel­op­ment. In late Jan­uary, the road was still a mess of py­lons and ditches. And the ma­chine-gun-tot­ing se­cu­rity guards over­see­ing the empty sta­tion lacked wa­ter, forc­ing them to walk hours for a drink.

Farm­ers in Lugo Vil­lage, an im­pov­er­ished clus­ter of slap­dash houses a few hun­dred yards from the sta­tion, said the rail project has made life un­bear­able, in part be­cause lo­cals can’t cross the rail con­struc­tion zone, but must go around it.

It “di­vides the vil­lage into two,” said Tashoma Kafani, 72. Be­fore con­struc­tion be­gan, he said, he could walk to his bar­ley and maize fields in about two hours; now, he needs about five.

“We have re­peat­edly con­tacted the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties,” he said. “We have been ex­press­ing our prob­lems and voic­ing our con­cern about the ab­sence of a bridge. But so far, they haven’t been re­spon­sive.”

As for the Chi­nese plan­ners who de­signed the project, Kafani can’t even imag­ine how to com­mu­ni­cate with them.

The rail line crosses into Dji­bouti about 360 miles to the north­east. It ends in the cap­i­tal, Dji­bouti City, where, on the western edge of its main port, China is build­ing the new mil­i­tary base — an un­prece­dented pro­jec­tion of power for China’s rapidly ex­pand­ing army.

Dji­bouti is a for­mer French colony of 850,000 peo­ple, and its cap­i­tal — a patchy grid of dusty streets and sun-bleached Moor­ish build­ings — feels like an is­land, hemmed in by end­less miles of mas­sive, walled-off for­eign com­pounds.

China’s base is about eight miles from Camp Le­mon­nier, Amer­ica’s only full-scale base in Africa. France, Ger­many, Italy and Ja­pan also main­tain bases in Dji­bouti, both for its po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity — its pres­i­dent, Is­mail Omar Guelleh, has ruled the coun­try since 1999 — and its prox­im­ity to ter­ror­ism hot spots in Africa and the Mid­dle East.

Chi­nese of­fi­cials call the base a “sup­ply cen­ter,” in­tended pri­mar­ily to sup­port China’s anti-piracy ef­forts in the Gulf of Aden — a cru­cial ship­ping route — and pro­tect its com­mer­cial in­ter­ests.

“Peo­ple are very sen­si­tive about [the Dji­bouti base], but I don’t think that’s fair,” said Xu Guangyu, a re­tired Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army ma­jor gen­eral in Bei­jing. The U.S. main­tains hun­dreds of overseas bases, he said. “We in China think it’s silly, to have so many overseas mil­i­tary bases. We have built only one sup­ply cen­ter. So why all the spec­u­la­tion about this news?”

Peter Dut­ton, pro­fes­sor of strate­gic stud­ies at the Naval War Col­lege in Rhode Is­land, said China’s new base says more about the coun­try’s eco­nomic heft than its mil­i­tary am­bi­tions. “What we’re talk­ing about is fun­da­men­tally geoe­co­nomics, rather than geo-strat­egy,” he said.

On the other hand, China is “walk­ing away from some of the premises that have un­der­girded its for­eign pol­icy for 60 years,” he said. “They’re be­gin­ning to act like a great power which takes a role in in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics and se­cu­rity. And that’s a fairly sig­nif­i­cant change for China.”

China has given Dji­bouti’s gov­ern­ment bil­lions of dol­lars in loans and in­vest­ment, help­ing fund new ports, two air­ports and a pipe­line for drink­ing wa­ter from Ethiopia. It’s also plan­ning a series of power plants and a tax-free man­u­fac­tur­ing zone. Nearly a quar­ter of Dji­bouti’s pop­u­la­tion lives be­neath the poverty line — its un­em­ploy­ment rate in 2014 was 60% — and lo­cals say the coun­try des­per­ately needs the help.

Dji­bouti in­au­gu­rated the rail line in Jan­uary in a mass cel­e­bra­tion fea­tur­ing Dji­boutian celebri­ties and African heads of state. By early Fe­bru­ary, the line hadn’t yet opened, and the fes­tive at­mos­phere had died down, but lo­cals were feel­ing hope­ful nonethe­less.

At the rail line’s penul­ti­mate sta­tion — an­other empty mono­lith — De­gan Mo­hamed, 31, stood alone but for five se­cu­rity guards, sweep­ing up dust. She was hired as a jan­i­tor in Oc­to­ber, her first job.

“I had no al­ter­na­tive,” she said. “I am earn­ing money, so I am quite happy.”

Noah Fowler For The Times

THOU­SANDS of Ethiopian em­ploy­ees of Hua­jian Shoe Co. work 13-hour days glu­ing, in­spect­ing and box­ing women’s shoes in a Chi­nese-built in­dus­trial park along the new rail line that be­gins in Ad­dis Ababa.

Pho­to­graphs by Noah Fowler For The Times

CHINA has been in­vest­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions in Ad­dis Ababa and around Ethiopia’s cap­i­tal. At the Hua­jian Shoe Co., above, chief ex­ec­u­tive Zhang Huarong, top left, in­spects pro­duc­tion lines. “Africa is too poor,” he says. “It needs en­trepreneurs like me to bal­ance out the global econ­omy, so that more peo­ple can live a happy life.”

THE NEW Ad­dis Ababa, Ethiopia, train sta­tion, built by China’s state-owned rail and con­struc­tion firms, is con­nected to a $4-bil­lion rail line that leads to coastal Dji­bouti City in the neigh­bor­ing coun­try of Dji­bouti.

Sources: Mapzen, OpenStreetMap Jon Sch­leuss Los An­ge­les Times

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