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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 November 2007, 00:59 GMT
China in Africa: Developing ties

View of Addis Ababa with road construction in foreground

In the second part of a special series on China's new relationship with Africa, the BBC's Adam Blenford reports on the new roads being built in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The Chinese shun the limelight in Ethiopia's capital, but traces of them are rarely far away.

In Addis Ababa's largest market, shoppers pick through piles of Chinese-made shoes and imported underwear.

At the city's new vocational college, dozens of students are taking lessons in classrooms built with Chinese money. Inside government ministries and hospital offices, Chinese computer experts do their thing to bring Ethiopia's outdated IT networks into the 21st Century.

But it is on the city's roads - potholed, dusty and permanently under construction - where the Chinese influence is most pronounced.

Much of Addis Ababa is currently a mess of churned earth and drying concrete.

Piles of Chinese-made shoes in Addis Ababa
Addis Ababa's stores are piled high with Chinese goods
Major roads lie devastated by earth movers. Minibus taxis bump and grind their way over temporary road surfaces. A short journey in the midday sun can become a choking ordeal.

At first glance the construction sites seem an all-Ethiopian affair: local women haul huge rocks into place for local men to break them up with a pickaxe. Local surveyers take endless measurements.

But the real power lies elsewhere, with the well-dressed Chinese men standing slightly away from the dust and clatter.

Far from home and rarely off-duty, these are the road-builders quietly constructing a continent.

Modest means

At the age of 29, Sun Guicai has already spent four years in Africa.

Project leader Sun Guicai (r) eats dinner
Mr Sun (right) says Africans can learn new skills from the Chinese
Although his family lives in Beijing, Mr Sun only sees his wife for two or three months each year, when the African rains render construction impractical.

A veteran of construction projects in Uganda and Burundi, Mr Sun says he prefers the climate in Ethiopia, where he now finds himself in control of a major project with a large budget.

Smiling with his workers on site and joking with the Ethiopian engineers and designers contracted to him, Mr Sun speaks of his role in Africa with a certain zeal.

"I'm doing it for my company," he says, before adding: "And I'm doing it for my country."

Mr Sun's 5.8km road winds around one flank of Addis Ababa, passing the grand estates of the Kenyan and British embassies as it goes.

African people's thinking has already changed because of the Chinese
Sun Guicai
China Road and Bridge Corporation
His employers, the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), won the right to build the road by offering to complete the project for 160 million Ethiopian birr ($17.6m).

China's government sweetened the deal by offering 50m Chinese yuan ($6.7m) to the Ethiopian government, slightly more than one-third of the total cost.

Yet Mr Sun's means are modest, like those of his 15 Chinese staff. All of those working for CRBC lodge at the company's depot, a small compound right next to the road they are building.

Mr Sun himself sleeps on a small camp bed in the back of his office, which is lit by a flourescent strip and split in two by a flimsy curtain.

It is a disciplined, committed existence, far-removed from the lifestyles most European contractors would expect - and far cheaper.

Homes bulldozed

Money is also an issue for those in the path of Mr Sun's imported bulldozers.

With the widening of Addis Ababa's roads, thousands of ordinary people are being forced to leave their homes.

Ethiopian labourers on their way home at the end of a working day
Ethiopian labourers are driven to and from work for each 11-hour day
Felkech Yuhans has lived at her modest corrugated steel home for 18 years. Three generations of her family now live alongside her. For most of those years the small house was just one dwelling in the middle of a long row of homes.

Now Ms Felkech and her family have to move. They have no choice - two road-sized strips of freshly-dug earth now converge at her front door. Only the family stands in the way.

"I feel so sad, I don't know what I'm supposed to do," she says. There are stories in the neighbourhood of government compensation schemes, but few believe the cash will be enough to re-house families.

Many of those moving on have owned their small homes for years, and supplement their income by renting out rooms for a few extra birr. Now they will have to become tenants themselves.

Among the newly dispossesed is Addis Gazehagri, whose art studio has been dismantled to make way for the road.

"Because of this road there are many problems," he says. But he stops short of blaming all his woes on the Chinese.

"We don't really talk to them, but we think they want to help Ethiopia," Mr Addis says, even as his studio is dismantled around him.

Quid pro quo?

At the CRBC headquarters, Mr Sun insists his mission in Africa is a benevolent one.

Chinese supervisor watches road construction
The road-building is overseen by watchful Chinese supervisors
"Transport is very important. If you want to develop your country you need to build good roads," he says.

"We are training the Africans to work. African people's thinking has already changed because of the Chinese."

Labourers now work harder, Mr Sun says, because they are paid extra if they finish more work.

But senior Ethiopians working on the Chinese-run road gang say the basic wage for labour, equivalent to about $2 per day, is not enough.

On site, standing next to a modern crossing the Chinese are building to replace a 102-year-old Russian-built bridge - the oldest in Ethiopia - Mr Sun says the millions China is contributing are a gift from Beijing.

Ethiopian designer Habtom Gebre smiles at his paymaster, but disagrees.

The cash is a loan, he says, touching on a delicate issue most in Ethiopia's government would prefer he left alone: "It will be repaid when the Chinese find oil in the south of Ethiopia."

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