Ethiopia: Meles’ and Mengistu’s visits to China By Eskinder Nega

August 19th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

This was a bitter sweet visit for Ethiopia’s increasingly precarious PM, Meles Zenawi. It was obvious he traveled to the Orient savoring the ensuing headlines. His cheerful mood was apparent as he boarded the chartered Boeing that was to ferry him to the Middle Kingdom. He was mysteriously all smiles.

Unbeknownst to many that day was Chinese approval of 500 million dollars in new loans to Ethiopia. Meles was due in Beijing to proudly preside over the official signing ceremony. What could the near bankrupt West do but look with marked tinge of envy? Certainly, no one would miss this cunning Chinese response to Hillary Clinton’s provocative “beware of Chinese colonization” June 2011 speech in Tanzania. And he would be in the spot that any leader in power for two decades naturally craves most, the international spotlight. In addition, there will of course be the 500 million dollars to take back home as proof that he still is, despite lingering uncertainty generated by the Arab Spring, an international player to be reckoned with. There were ample reasons to be upbeat.

But curse the hunger. It changed the narrative.

Somehow, there was more interest about the separate 55 million dollars food-aid offered by the Chinese; a paltry tenth of the loans generously extended in this age of financial pandemonium.

Meles wanted to speak about investment and loans when he met Wen Jiabao, the Chinese Premier. Economics dominated his thoughts.

But Jiabao had a crisis—yes, he called it a crisis!— in mind.

A crisis? What crisis? Have demonstrations broken out in Addis? Meles wasn’t smiling anymore.

“China will stay with Ethiopia to cope with the current crisis (hunger), beef up cooperation and strive for common development,” an unsmiling Jiabao told the media after the meeting.

To any one who read between the lines, this was the Chinese version of a public snub. Meles wanted economics to dominate his visit and hoped to limit the looming threat of famine to an afterthought. The Chinese opted for the opposite. They clearly wanted their guest to sensibly prioritize his needs by feeding the hungry first. And they let the world know, albeit by way of their customary doublespeak. There were only muted promises of investment. Much more was said about hunger.

Few days later, President Hu Jintao reinforced the official line when he met Meles in the Southern city of Shenzhen. I am concerned about hunger in the horn, he told Meles. This time there wasn’t even mention of other issues, at least as far as the media was concerned. There was no ambiguity. Hunger, not trade and investment, was center stage, much to the dismay of uppity Meles Zenawi.

Almost unconsciously, China has acted like the rising super-power it is. Confronted with irrefutable proof of a humanitarian disaster in the making, China has for the first time asserted real leadership far beyond Asia. For any one who cares to take notice, here is a historical milestone. Beijing could no more indefinitely stave off the responsibility of moral leadership that comes with world-power status.

The last time the Chinese snubbed an Ethiopian leader was in the 80s. Beleaguered Mengistu Haile-Mariam was in Beijing to complain about “imperialists” sabotaging his socialist revolution and plead for aid. But with ideologue Mao long dead, reforming Deng, then firmly in control of China, was in no mood for revolutionary rhetoric.

“Negotiate with your opponents and concentrate on feeding the people,” advised Deng.

Mengistu was outraged. He left Beijing not only disappointed but also angered. The audacity of Deng had unnerved him. He had excuses for his problems. The insurgents were little more than nuisances, they were not a real threat. Negotiating with them, he reckoned, would only be making a mountain out of a molehill. And ever the orthodox ideologue, drought not flawed policies bred Ethiopia’s hungry millions. He was not to blame.

In the end, of course, Deng was to be proved right. Even from a distance, his foresight was striking. But by the time Mengistu was finally prepared to heed his advice, it was too late.

Meles is not the only despot who sees more than there actually is in the rivalry between the West and the Chinese in Africa. Fantasies aside, unlike the cold-war era, when two world views were competing for world domination, the ball of contention is entirely different these days. The Chinese may aspire to eventual economic primacy but are perfectly cognizant that they offer no plausible alternative to liberal democracy. Their interest in Ethiopia, or indeed any where else in Africa, has always been exclusively commercial in the post-Deng years. Like the Japanese before them, they have neither politics nor world-view to export. Soft power remains an unchallenged domain of the West.

But with almost a million Chinese now living in Africa and trade having expanded spectacularly from 6 billion to 100 billion dollars in less than a decade, Chinese perspectives must inevitably broaden. Too much is now at stake. No more is it feasible to look askance when genocide was in play, as was the case in Sudan. No more is it possible to pretend that all is rosy as millions go hungry, as is the case with Ethiopia. Not only has China become rich and strong enough to make conscience an imperative but bad publicity is famously bad for business.

It’s time for a dose of imagination in Chinese foreign policy. A budding superpower could do more than merely oppose the West. And perhaps banning the sale of jamming devices would be the best place to start. It has tarnished China’s image.

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The writer can be reached at: serk27@gmail.com.

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