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The Hidden World of Chinese Manufacturing in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s long-held ambition is to one day emerge as a major global manufacturing hub, benefiting from a wave of Chinese offshoring. The East African country’s strategic location, abundant labor supply, and welcoming government are all very enticing for cost-conscious Chinese manufacturers.

And while Ethiopia has been more successful than many African countries in attracting Chinese investors, the number of factories that have been established there is still relatively small.

A new documentary that’s making the rounds on the international film festival circuit provides fascinating insights into why that’s the case. The film, “Made in Ethiopia,” tells the story of a Chinese-backed industrial park outside of Addis Ababa that’s struggled mightily through the pandemic and later a civil war.

Co-directors/producers Xinyan Yu and Max Duncan, both experienced journalists, join Eric & Cobus to discuss their new film and what it took to produce such a textured, complex story.

Show Notes:

About Xinyan Yu and Max Duncan:

Xinyan Yu is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker based in Washington, DC. Born and raised in Wuhan, China, Xinyan started her journalism career in 2012, working as a producer for BBC News in Beijing. She has covered major breaking news across Asia and North America for a decade. Now an independent filmmaker, Xinyan has directed and produced content for international broadcasters, including BBC, NHK, PBS NOVA, PBS Frontline, and Channel News Asia. She is a New America National Fellow, a Firelight Media Doc Lab fellow, a Brown Girls Doc Mafia Sustainable Artist fellow and an alumnus of the Yaddo Residency. Made in Ethiopia is her feature documentary debut.

Max Duncan is an award-winning filmmaker, cinematographer, and journalist whose work has appeared on platforms including the BBC, PBS, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera. He worked for a decade in China, first as a video journalist for the Reuters news agency in Beijing and then independently, exploring the country’s meteoric rise from many angles. He has since reported widely across Asia (including multiple trips to North Korea), Africa, Europe, and Latin America. Max has won a World Press Photo Award, been supported by organizations including Pulitzer, and is an alumnus of Yaddo and Logan Nonfiction programs. Made in Ethiopia is his feature documentary debut.


Eric Olander: Hello, and welcome to another edition of the China in Africa Podcast, a proud member of the Sinica Podcast Network. I’m Eric Olander, and, as always, I’m joined by China Global South’s Managing Editor, Cobus van Staden, from Johannesburg, South Africa. A very good afternoon to you, Cobus.

Cobus: Good afternoon.

Eric: Cobus, a monumental day for you and your compatriots in South Africa. At the time of this recording, we still do not know who is going to win the election, but you braved the lines to go out and cast your ballot. How did it feel?

Cobus: It was good. You know, obviously not my first time. This is a really big election in South Africa, so we’ll see how it goes. But it’s always a very feel-good experience. South Africa really worked hard to get democracies, and they’re frequently not very happy with how the democracy turned out, but on these kind of voting days, you get this a moment, a kind of a feel-good moment, you’re like, “Oh yeah, South Africans, we put it in, and here we are voting.” So, it is always moving.

Eric: And were the polls crowded today?

Cobus: Yes, very crowded.

Eric: Oh, that’s a good sign. That’s always a good sign. Well, we don’t, again, know, at the time of this recording, who has won or what parties, how they fared, but again, obviously it is still in a monumental day because you and I both remember Cobus when most people in South Africa couldn’t vote. In our childhood, that wasn’t possible. So, as your point, it means a lot. Well, let’s kind of move on today. Really excited for today’s show and that’s a little bit different. We’re going to step back from the news a little bit. And Cobus, it made me think the contrast between the discussion we’re going to have today about this amazing new documentary and what we saw last week in Washington when Kenyan President William Ruto visited the White House. And that was an important visit, the first head of state visit from an African leader, official state visit to the White House in 16 years.

And it was a little bit frustrating because we got, in many respects, these very one-dimensional caricatures of China-Africa relations because so much of the U.S.-Africa relationship is filtered to the prism of China. And in many respects, a lot of the reviews of the visit have come in a little bit mediocre. But when it comes to China specifically, we saw some coverage in Politico that, again, just flattens this relationship. And that’s the part that I think is so interesting when we look at some of these more complex caricatures that we’ve seen over the past 15 years, they don’t show up in the media. And again, and I’d love to get your take on this because I’m surprised that this long into the China-Africa relationship, we’re still not getting a lot of the nuance that one would expect from major international news organizations that have covered the story over the years, but still resort to debt trap diplomacy narrative, still resort to China, taking over, China being kind of the dominant power in Africa when in fact we know it’s far more nuanced than that.

But give us your take a little bit on what you thought of the media coverage that came out of the Kenya visit.

Cobus: I agree. I thought it was a little flattened. You know, I think the issue is frequently that, particularly for kind of a D.C. crowd, they’re only interested in the China side of the story. They’re not interested in the African side. And then also with that, they’re mostly interested in trying to get a conveniently negative kind of portrayal of the Chinese involvement rather than the full complexity. And I think that tended to be reflected in the press coverage as well.

Eric: Well, at the same time that this was coming out, you and I had the chance to watch, again, what I think is just a stunning documentary film. And this is part of a pattern we’ve seen over the past few years where, every few months now, we’re starting to see one. We saw, remember last year, or was it earlier this year? We spoke with the directors of Eat Bitter, which talked about the story of Chinese in the Central African Republic. Now there’s a new film that is just making its way into the film festival circuit. It’s going to premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York on June 6th at 8:15. It’s called Made in Ethiopia. And it’s the story of the Eastern Industry Park located smack dab in the middle of Ethiopia, about an hour’s drive outside of Addis Ababa. This is a story that took place in a period of time that was just absolutely incredible. It started with the pandemic and then effectively ended with a civil war.

It was co-directed and co-produced by Max Duncan and Xinyan Yu, both of them joining us today on the line from the United States and from Spain. Congratulations, Max and Xinyan, for an absolutely stunning piece of work.

Max Duncan: Thanks, Eric.

Xinyan Yu: Thank you, Eric.

Eric: Let’s start by setting the scene for why you wanted to cover this topic. This is not a new topic. We have seen documentaries, we have seen in-depth coverage of Ethiopia in terms of the Chinese manufacturing presence there. This is well-trodden ground. And Xinyan, why don’t we start with you to give us what inspired you to think that you could bring something different to the story that we hadn’t already seen?

Xinyan: I feel like I’ve made my life mission to demystify China in a way. Like you guys said, that oftentimes the coverage of China’s very flattened. I’ve covered China’s One Belt Road Initiative for some time now. And before this documentary, I was working on a BBC documentary about the China’s new Silk Road. And I went to Kazakhstan, I went to Poland, and we covered UK. We went to see the train, the railway across Europe. And I just was left unsatisfied with the little stories that we were telling along the way. There were interesting cases of factories being turned around in Poland and milk farms being bought by Chinese businessmen. And I think there was just this perpetual confusion over what are the Chinese people doing in developing countries or in others? Really, this new rising power is very little understood. So, I think I’m driven by curiosity to see, and this Chinese industrial zone is not the first time it was featured in the media, but it was also very much the same kind of narrative.

So, I think when we went, it was eye-opening because we were able to make a determination to stay longer and really see beyond the surface of what was happening there. So yeah, it was very much driven by curiosity. It was very much driven by the need to put more nuances into the story.

Cobus: And Max, what was behind the choice of Ethiopia? Like, obviously, as Xinyan was alluding to, there’s these Chinese developments in many, many countries. So, why was Ethiopia particularly compelling?

Max: So, we’d both worked as journalists in China for kind of a decade each. And it was very interesting to see how China’s industrialization transformed the whole of society. And this period also coincided with China’s increasing investment in Africa as a whole and also the sort of start of the Belt and Road Initiative as a framework. And Ethiopia as a country, you know, it was being referred to by some as the China of Africa, which may be a bit trite. There’s kind of good reason behind that in the sense that it was this country with a huge poor population of 115 million people that didn’t really have many natural resources that sort of wanted to do a China. And Meles Zenawi was in some ways was very much a Deng Xiaoping kind of figure in a sense.

This was the prime minister from 1991 — was very developmentally focused. It was sort of big infrastructure, create a lot of jobs for this large population, and essentially looking to China as a model for development. So, we’d seen some reports about the industrial parks that were opening up in Ethiopia and it just seemed like the best way to talk about this bigger relationship between China and Africa. But also Ethiopia, as a country in itself, is so fascinating and so specific. I mean, culturally, it’s so specific, it has such a unique culture, has such a unique place in Africa, and it’s just… I traveled there a couple of times before and it’s just such a fascinating and potentially very cinematic, also location, to set a film. So, I think all these factors kind of came together, and we did an early recce at the beginning of 2019. Went out and sort of with a very open mind looking at everything that was happening with Chinese investment in Africa from that new railway from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, to private businesses, to industrial parks.

And visited this particular industrial park when it was under a different director and just thought the place was extraordinary in terms of the scale, the diversity of what was going on there, the different products being produced — a hundred Chinese companies. And it just seemed like the perfect microcosm to explore all the different facets of a very complex relationship.

Eric: Well, let’s dive into the characters and some of the themes in the movie. And we’ll start with one of the main people you focused on, her name is Moto, I think that’s how you pronounce it. And she’s just a force of nature. I mean there’s just no other way to describe her. But in many ways I recognize Moto. I’ve seen a lot of these Chinese business people around the world who are just, I mean they’ve just got so much energy. I mean, I could see that this is a woman who gets up at four in the morning and doesn’t stop until 11:00 at night and then just grinds every day. In fact, Max, it’s interesting you talk about the similarities between Ethiopia and China. In fact, Moto, at one point, she’s telling visitors that… “Doesn’t this feel like China did when we were kids?” And at one point someone even said that the roads in Ethiopia were even better than they were in Beijing.

And that nostalgia for those early days in China, which I remember from the 1990s. And in fact, it did look like that. that’s no joke that, in my lifetime, China looked a lot like what you see in Ethiopia. But let’s start with Moto. Tell us, Xinyan, about her. How did it come about that you were able to work with her and that she agreed to give you so much access to her life, to her business meetings, her personal life? This was a very intimate portrayal to the point where she’s even at one point crying to the camera out of the tensions that she faced in running this very complex business. Tell us about Moto and how she became such an important part of your story.

Xinyan: Yeah, Moto is definitely a force of nature. She is a woman in a sea of men. Usually when we see her is with 20 men in the room. And she really held the room, really held her power there. I think when we first met him, it was very surprising. We didn’t really know much about her. We knew that there was a new director. And as soon as we met her, it just became really clear that she’s going to be one of our characters. I mean this eastern industry zone has been treated as a poster child for sort of Chinese investment in Ethiopia. It even predated the massive number of factory that came later. It kind of was the one of the first…

Eric: And this is the one with the famous Huajian shoe factory, right? I mean that was the anchor.

Xinyan: Yes.

Eric: And Cobus, do you remember many years ago, back in the early 2010s, people were celebrating the Huajian shoe factory as the first of what would become a wave of Chinese manufacturing that would come to Africa. Of course, that never happened. But still in Ethiopia, the Huajian shoe factory is held up as somewhat of a legend.

Max: Yes. And we interviewed the CEO of that factory.

Xinyan: This was the first Chinese industrial zone that opened in Ethiopia and it triggered a more state led influx of factories later. So it was treated as this poster child of Chinese investments. So, they were very open to start with. There are many other media that went to Huajian and visited there and filmed there. So, when Moto took over, it was with the task of trying to bridge the gap, I would say, between the outside world and this world that the Chinese investment has sort of built in the suburb of Addis Ababa. And so she had a very clear goal to try to be transparent and try to help people understand what they were doing. She was really proud, and she grew up in Dōngběi, and her parents were teachers, very normal family. And she had lived through many of Chinese people in my mom’s generation or, actually that’s not true — she’s younger than my mom.

But many Chinese people have lived through that period. Even I myself have seen, in my mom’s generation, many people worked in the factories. No one really had much of an abundance in life. So she talked about a difficult childhood. She’s not able to get everything she wanted as a kid. So, she would remembered this sense of scarcity. And coming to Ethiopia, really, she’s very driven to repeat or to duplicate the success that she’s seen growing up in China, in Africa. Whether that drive succeeds or not, I think is clear. I think we felt the genuine drive that she had. And yeah, so she is a force of nature and a tornado. And she would come in and really try to manage everything.

Cobus: And Xinyan, just following up on that, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the issue of access in general. As Eric mentioned, there’s a lot of quite intimate scenes with her. There’s a lot of access to the kind of business activities that’s happening within the factory, but then also a lot of access to the communities around the factory and the workers working there. It’s a kind of a 360 access achieved, which, from our own experience, we know is extremely challenging. So, I was wondering how you guys managed to achieve that level of intimacy with all of these different actors.

Xinyan: I think we were really lucky with the timing of our arrival. I think when Moto took over, she had this very fresh energy to showcase the success of China. So, she was very proud. And she was also one of the very few Chinese people you’ll see out there who are very active, and she speaks local language, she speaks good English. There’s no problem in her delivering that vision. She doesn’t really shy away from talking about the problems. She understand that it’s not a cut and dry situation here. And she loves talking about her interaction with Ethiopian officials. So, she had a very open attitude. And I think her personality is also that, let’s talk candidly and see how it goes. I think our timing was really good. And we had the luxury of time, of each time we would arrive and stay for a month at least, and sometimes in factory dorms.

And I think people are kind of perplexed by us, like, who are these people who are just sitting here and listening to our stories? Because we’re not really like news crews. We don’t come in and try to force a story out of three days. We’re literally trying to live in these dormitories and observing what people were eating, the canteens, whether Ethiopian canteens or Chinese canteens. It was a whirlwind of events that fascinated us. So, we just couldn’t stay away. And these factory bosses, first, were quite guarded because they were so used to media coming and sort of then seeing the press and not really understanding what the narrative out there is. So, they were quite guarded. But I think over time, we were just like hanging out with people at dinners. And yeah, there were just so many different characters we bumped into.

The Ethiopian side I think is very difficult because obviously Max and I were not Ethiopian, we’re not local. We were working with two field producers who were excellent. One is Tigrayan, one is Oromo, who was a scholar. But it was difficult because they were not from the village either. So, they were really guarded as well. Again, they were perplexed by our presence as well. Who are these people who are just showing up at villages? But I think time really helped us. We kept showing up, and even when there were conflicts happening, we were showing up. And there were conflicts happening. We would try to talk to both sides. I think both sides then saw that, oh okay, these people are interested in both of our stories. They’re not just on the Chinese side or on the Ethiopian side. They were curious about our live stories. I think both sides were really taken aback by how even-handed we were, or at least we tried to be. So, I think access slowly opened up, and we were really lucky to really win the trust of those communities.

Eric: I mean, for people who aren’t familiar with this kind of work, I personally believe you would deserve to win the Tribeca Film Festival award for this alone because it is so difficult to get that kind of access and to get people to take down their guards the way they did. And you guys shot this beautifully. I mean, the cinematography on it also just makes it even that much more compelling. The audio is excellent. So, it didn’t have that feeling of a kind of run-and-gun type of documentary. But you talk about Moto, and I just want to stay with her just a little bit because she also represents a number of very interesting themes in the broader China-Africa relationship.

And so, you talked about how she’s trilingual. And at one point, I mean she’s such a booster for Ethiopian, at one point she said that she even felt like she was Ethiopian, and she said Ethiopia’s going to be on the same path as China by focusing on economic development. And the story is about how the Industrial Park wants to build out a second phase. And they’re taking over some farmland next door and they’re working with the local government, but there are farmers on the farmland. And some of the interactions between Moto and the farmers were absolutely fascinating. Where in the beginning she was very warm, giving them hugs, and she’s speaking local language with them. And then the moment when it turns tough, she picks up her phone and, man, she shuts off, and it’s all business.

And I think that was quite jarring for some of the locals and it just revealed a little bit of the intensity with how the Chinese do business. And Max, you lived in China for a long time, and I think you must have recognized those Chinese business practices which are quite aggressive, I think, when they are seen in other cultures outside of China. But they were on full display in Moto.

Max: Yeah, I mean, I think what we saw in China, especially during that period, which we lived through of this sort of incredibly fast-paced development, is this idea that we’ve got to move forward, we’ve got to do it now, and that progress is the priority.

Eric: There’s a sense of urgency to it.

Max: There’s a sense of urgency. And you can see that she feels the urgency because in the case of the expansion of the Industry Park, that the Chinese company has paid the compensation several years previously, and the local government hasn’t managed to free up the land so that they can actually build this thing. And I think in her mind, this is in the interest of everybody overall, and if we have to push a little bit, and if it’s going to be a little bit uncomfortable and painful, that’s the necessary price to push things forward. I think that’s kind of a bit of the mentality and one of the themes that I think we’re looking at in the film as a whole. Right? So, yeah, definitely an answer to your question. I mean, recognize some of these practices, and you can see also in some ways that the local government, even though it’s their responsibilities to sort this thing out, are actually reticent to solve some of the problems. And that’s where a lot of the kind of frustration on the Chinese side comes from.

Eric: And the farmers knew this, though. So, the farmers didn’t seem like they were directing their anger towards the Chinese. Their frustration was with the local government who hadn’t given them proper compensation, hadn’t relocated them. So, it seemed like governance was a big challenge in this whole process.

Max: Yeah, I think that’s right. We follow our main farmer subject, [Wakinesh 0:19:59] is a very progressive woman who actually can’t wait to get out of the village. And I think that’s in contrast to some of the kind of clichés that we might have in our minds about farmers not wanting to change their way of life and resisting progress. So, she’s actually quite on board with the whole thing so long as she gets her proper compensation. She has nothing against the Chinese whatsoever. It’s essentially that she feels that it’s the local government is the thing that’s getting between her and progress. I think that’s reflected by some of the farmers. I mean there’s a great diversity of opinion within the village community about what they really want. And I think that somehow is divided sometimes along gender lines but also along age lines, religious lines. It’s very, very complex, which we’ve tried to show the complexity of that whole situation. But it’s also not easy in a 90-minute film.

Cobus: The story of the film essentially gets structured around the COVID pandemic and then the Tigrayan war. So, I was wondering how your shooting experience was impacted by both of those big events.

Xinyan: We had to suspend filming for at least a year during COVID and it was really difficult. We tried to get cameras into the factory, we tried to teach people how to shoot stuff of themselves. I remember even on my day job, I was trying to teach people how to film, and that didn’t really turn out very well because people were, like in China, they put thousands of factory workers, basically told them to come and work and live in the factory with very meaner resources — sleeping on the ground and, and there was food, but long working hours. People could not leave the factory. That was really painful for our main character, Betty. That was a turning point for her.

And when she realized, you know, this is really not what she wanted and then it’s not really what she came here for. So, COVID was really difficult. We were able to return, and once we did, we kind of missed that key period. But I think the remnants of COVID was still very clear. Many Chinese people weren’t able to go home for three, four years over that period, and a lot of workers were very disgruntled and upset with that situation. And reconsidering the group of factory girls that we were featuring, some of them left. It became a very volatile period for the worker community. The Tigrayan war as well, it didn’t really affect the capital city, but it affected our visa process, made it very slow, and a lot of the Chinese factories pulled out of Ethiopia.

It was a very dark period. U.S. dollar exchange rate was really very volatile. The Chinese businessmen were losing hope in Ethiopia and moving out of the country. We actually met people who were literally packing up and leaving their factories behind in Tigray and evacuated with embassy in huge trucks through the deserts. And it was an ordeal for them. And it affected the confidence of many investors in the second phase. The second phase, the industrial wasn’t able to procure it, but also that people have lost their interest to invest in it. So, it became a culminating in this moment of disappointment for all our characters.

Eric: I want to pick up Xinyan what you were talking about in terms of this question of the labor, and the work ethic emerged as one of the cultural tensions between the Chinese and the Ethiopians. And this is something that repeatedly various Chinese characters in the film were talking about the frustrations they’re having in managing Ethiopians. And, at the same time, local government officials, you got them on camera talking about how they were almost apologizing for some of the labor issues, the unwillingness of the workers to do overtime and some of the low-quality output. And at the same time, they’re talking about the importance of jobs given the high unemployment rate, particularly among youth.

So, we had that contradiction where there was a lot of unemployment, but yet when it came time to work, the Chinese were just expecting them to work like Chinese, and they wouldn’t. And let me just give a couple quotes here to give people a context. So, one Ethiopian worker said… “The Chinese work ethic is admirable but Ethiopians have our way.” And then the Chinese would say, “In China one worker could do the work of five of these workers.” At one point you captured this tense interaction between a Chinese manager and a team of workers who were making jean, and the manager wanted 5,000 pairs a day to be produced. And they were saying they can’t do that, so they tried to negotiate 4,500, or 3000 was their first offer. And the response out of the Chinese manager was, automatically, cannot do it.

And this emerged as this real frustration. Max, can you talk to us a little bit about this question of labor and the different expectations that were on display by both the Ethiopian workers and the Chinese bosses and then these interpreters who were caught in the middle trying to mediate this?

Max: Sure. I think work culture is always a very difficult thing to talk about without making huge generalizations. But I think it’s fair to say I think we can all agree that the Chinese supervisors and Chinese in general in Ethiopia are used to working extremely hard and prioritizing work over everything else. And I think priorities is perhaps part of the key to it. And you find, as you mentioned, Betty’s comment that… “we Ethiopians have our own way…” is that their priorities may be slightly different and they’re not prepared to work seven days a week, and they’re not necessarily prepared to give up everything their private lives and live inside a factory dorm when a pandemic comes.

Eric: But that must have been perplexing to the Chinese who see Ethiopia today as the way China was in the ’90s when young Chinese were willing to do that. And so I think it must be hard for them to wrap their mind around like, “Wait, you’re not at the place in your development where you can have these kinds of luxuries. You need to grind.” That seemed to be the way that the Chinese were approaching this.

Max: I think that’s absolutely right. And I think the supervisors, particularly in these factories who’ve all come from the classic migrant worker route from the countryside to the southeast coast, the Dongguan sort of industrial areas, and worked those hours that they worked, and saw that they did rewards from it — they find it very difficult to understand a different mentality, which, to some degree, you can understand their confusion because, for them, it’s such a simple calculation.

Xinyan: I wanted to add that, because this is a question I ask myself, sometimes I see the relentlessness of Moto in myself, and I’ve asked myself, this is always a trope… oh, Chinese people work so hard. And some Chinese people think that other people are so lazy. And it’s just such a trope. And I always ask myself, why are we so relentless? Why am I so relentless? Why is Moto so relentless? And I think that we, as Chinese people, even though I was born in the late ’80s and I didn’t really experience much poverty, but the sense of urgency was this fear. I think it was driven by this fear of going back to where we came from. So this, like Ningyi’s film, Eat Bitter, I think this word is ingrained in our mind that you need to eat bitter first to taste sweetness later.

Eric: Can I give you my theory and just hear what you think?

Xinyan: Yeah, sure.

Eric: Okay. As a Laowai, as a foreigner, okay? And I don’t pretend to know. I think it’s this, that scarcity drives it, that China’s always been a place, in the past 50, 60 years, where there’s been too many people, too few opportunities, too few resources. You have to fight for everything — a seat on the subway, a place in the school, a job in a factory. You’re fighting constantly from the morning to the evening. You’re constantly fighting for resources. And I think there’s this drive, and you even see it in wealthy people who don’t need to fight for resources, but they still have that instinct that I have to get it before somebody else does because if I don’t, then I won’t have anything. And it’s this scarcity instinct that is deep, deeply embedded in the Chinese DNA. I mean that’s just my amateur armchair kind of analysis of that.

Xinyan: Yeah, that’s basically the same thing that I was talking about in terms of the fear of going back to the poverty. And so, once someone has gotten it, they grab onto it and cannot stop. So, that was clear to me. What wasn’t clear to me is why weren’t our Ethiopian friends? We talked a lot with these Ethiopian workers. We even showed some of the parts of the films with them and we showed the whole film with Betty and what we were working on. We had this really interesting debate with Ethiopian workers. I think there’s a big theme in this film about hope and reality and the gap between hope and reality.

I think to be relentless is to be driven by that image you see at the end of the tunnel that you could enjoy prosperity at the end. So, a lot of Chinese people, they work 30 years. And they might be able to accumulate enough wealth to buy an apartment for their son or secure some kind of retirement. It was possible. I think when I was growing up, it was possible. My parents worked for a state-owned company, and the pension was at the end of it. There was some security that was dangling there and they were able to work relentlessly. I think when we’re talking to Ethiopian workers, it was clear to them that there was no system or no pipeline that guaranteed that security at the end of the tunnel.

So, it just wasn’t worth it. And if I were them, I wouldn’t feel the need to save up or to work harder to work overtime. When you go to Dongguan, if you don’t give people overtime, people will literally protest. That’s not the case in Ethiopia. I don’t blame them. There’s no guaranteed pathway to prosperity no matter how hard you work. It dawned on me that it wasn’t because, oh, Chinese people work harder or Ethiopians don’t. There’s no incentive that the beer wasn’t… It was doing terribly. You would earn maybe $50 a month, and next month, that same amount of money will be worth less. So much less.

So, it’s almost like let me spend it this month because next month is going to be worth $25. So, it’s just not worth it. I think I understood the gap between understanding in terms of work ethics, and that plays a huge part in motivating people to work hard or not.

Cobus: It struck me while I was watching the movie that in a lot of ways, it’s about this kind of saga of development. It’s almost like a tragic saga of development, and with China having played this very unique position of having been a global south country that has now managed to kind of like work itself up kind of by its own bootstraps to becoming a much richer country. So, I was wondering how the experience of making the movie made you think about development itself.

Max: Oof. I mean that’s a big question and development is a huge subject. I think what’s interesting, as Xinyan mentioned, is a lot of people. When different people see this film, in some ways it’s quite open-ended. Some people will have very, very different responses because they already have entrenched ideas about what kind of development is good for our societies. So some people would just see factories and think… ooh. I think, from making this film, I don’t think I can draw a sort of a conclusion. But I would say that in a country like Ethiopia, it’s not a country with a huge amount of options. And so, if you don’t industrialize it’s hard to see what alternatives there are to grow and provide for what is still a very poor population. But I think the key is really that if you are going to do it, you have to do it properly. And I think in some aspects of our film, we can see whether it’s related to labor or the way that the local government is handling the land appropriation issue, that these things could be done much better.

And that’s the way to sort of make sure that this sort of big prosperity actually is trickling down to the kind of individuals that we see in our film.

Cobus: I was wondering after the end of the movie what has happened subsequently, kind of what do you know of some of your characters and of Ethiopia more generally? Because, of course, you provided the snapshot of a process and a relationship in flux and in change. So, I was wondering where it’s settled subsequently.

Max: I mean, in terms of each of our characters, we’re in touch with them all the time. In terms of what’s happened to the country, I mean it’s been an extraordinarily difficult period for the country as a whole. And yet the Tigray conflict was sort of settled only for another major conflict to start with the Amhara. And then there’s a constant simmering conflict with the Oromo as well. So the country is, I mean not to mention the various diplomatic and potentially military spats that are happening with Egypt and with Somalia, it’s sort of in a constant state of uncertainty, which, in terms of investment, is sort of one of the worst things that you can have because people want certainty.

And at one time that was actually why Ethiopia was appealing to Chinese investors because there was a lot of certainty as compared to other African countries, I think.

Eric: Yeah. And don’t forget, when you started filming, and they even mentioned this, that some of the products were going to be sent to the United States under the AGOA Free Trade. By the time you finished it, the United States had withdrawn duty-free access and removed AGOA. And so that made these factories a lot less appealing for some Chinese investors.

Max: Sure. I think an important thing to say, though, is, we talked about skeleton projects and they do still plan to go ahead with it, and we don’t know, that’ll have to be part two, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But it was interesting, I was speaking to a few people [Ashante 0:33:22] Carlos Oya from SOAs, who I think you’ve had on the show. It was interesting, he reflected a feeling that we had actually, which is, while it’s been extremely difficult for Chinese investors that we’ve met inside the Industry Park, actually they’re quite resilient, and a lot of them are planning on sticking it out.

I’s not an unmitigated disaster, but the longer the kind of uncertainty and various conflicts in Ethiopia extend, how long can these guys hold out while it’s still worth their while rather than actually leave, packing up and going elsewhere, which is certainly some of them are looking at.

Eric: The film is Made in Ethiopia, and it was made by Max Duncan and Xinyan Yu, who are the co-directors and the co-producers. It is a triumph, there is no doubt. And if you are in New York City, you can still go see it at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 6th at 8:15 PM. Tickets are still available as of the time of this recording. Xinyan, the film is just about to embark on the film festival circuit. Maybe you can tell everybody some of the stops it’s going to make just in case they are local to it and can catch it.

Xinyan: So, we are coming to New York. We have three screenings — June 6th, June 9th, June 13th. And we’re also coming to Sheffield DocFest in the UK on June 13th. DC/DOX in Washington, D.C., on June 16, and in Joburg and Cape Town in South Africa, June 22nd and June 29th.

Eric: You know, my frustration about these films that you guys make, you independent film creators is they’re amazing, and yet it’s so hard for the rest of us to see them. Do you know if there’s any plans to put it online where people can maybe pay a small amount of money to watch it?

Max: At the moment, we are definitely focused on big sales. Because obviously if you start putting things online, then you jeopardize larger sales because of rights issues. So, the immediate future, we don’t have a plan to…

Eric: So, you want to get this on Netflix or Hulu or something like that?

Max: Sure. Or public broadcasters. We’ve done a couple of small national sales to a couple of European countries, but what we’re looking for is major sales to a streamer or to big reputable public broadcasters, which would also be great. So, those actually also allow an awful lot of people to see the film and you can sell it in different territories, also in many African countries, for example, where we hope people will be able to see it. So, that’s the plan.

Eric: Well, we wish you the best of luck. It is just an amazing piece of work. I’m gushing about it because I truly loved it. I hope as many people as possible can see it. Max Xinyan, thank you so much for your time, and best of luck again on the film festival circuit.

Xinyan: Thank you, Eric. Thank you, Cobus.

Eric: Cobus, we started the discussion talking about the Ruto-Biden visit in the coverage that, again, was so flat in how they described the China-Africa relationship. And what I liked best about this is, again, is the humanization of it. And we didn’t get a chance to talk about it, but one of the other takeaways is you see how difficult it is for so many of the Chinese expatriates who are in places like Ethiopia who are raising their kids on the other side of a WeChat video call. That’s all they get. And you could see the pain on their faces, and they even expressed it how difficult it was, and how the children themselves have habituated to this life. And by the way, this is not just a question of Chinese expatriates in Africa, but even in China, when people leave the countryside to go to the city and its grandparents that are taking care of children, that, too, is a very common thing.

But it’s incredibly painful. And the pain was accentuated by the fact that as Xinyan said they couldn’t go home for two and three years because of the pandemic. And so, to me, again, adding that human complexity to the drama is so essential to understanding this multifaceted dynamic relationship that, again, too often, even 20, 25 years now into the Chinese engagement in Africa in the modern era is still poorly understood.

Cobus: Yeah, absolutely. It was very striking for me. I think it’s a very important kind of corrective to the general, almost kind of unthinking assumption that A, development is the only way forward and that everything should be sacrificed for development. I think this would be great if you’re going to be teaching a course about the human impact of development, then this, I think movie would be a fantastic kind thing to prescribe, I think. Because it really kind of like shows you that no one makes it through unscathed through that process. And I think that that is really important to point out, particularly I think also because it shows, I think, just in practice, even though the Chinese and the Africans were so far apart on some of these issues, like in a lot of ways they were a lot closer together because they’re both going through and went through this process. And in a lot of ways, I think a lot of global north societies don’t really have that experience and so they can’t really speak to the realities of that experience I think the way that the Chinese can.

Eric: Well, while we’re on the subject of recommending amazing documentaries, I also want to put on your radar, and, again, this one, unlike Made in Ethiopia, you can actually watch. And Cobus, I haven’t even talked to you about this one, so this is going to be new to you. It’s a documentary by the Singaporean broadcaster, Channel News Asia. It’s a three-part series called, hosted by and reported by an excellent journalist by the name of Du Wei, who’s originally from Chongqing. And she covered this amazing journey of Chinese migrants illegally migrating to the United States via Ecuador, walking through the Darién Gap in Central America, up through Mexico, and over the southern border into the United States.

There’s some similarities with what we saw in Made in Ethiopia in that it humanizes this very complex relationship. I’m going to put links to Walk the Line. And the reason why they call it Walk the Line is because in Chinese it’s called Zǒu xiàn. And that is what they were seeing on Douyin, about how to walk up from the Darién Gap from Ecuador into Mexico and then over into the United States. By the way, Zǒu xiàn is a word now that has been blocked on Chinese social media because tens of thousands of Chinese migrants have been making this incredibly dangerous journey. And there’s a little kind of wrinkle in the story is that Chinese are almost guaranteed to be able to stay in the United States if they migrate illegally because the Chinese simply do not accept them back.

You can’t deport them. They don’t accept them back. So, it’s kind of a weird thing. And you’ll see the Chinese ripping up their passports at the border, and they become stateless effectively. And so the United States lets them stay. But Cobus, I can’t recommend it enough that you take a look at Walk the Line. I’ll send you the links, I’ll put the links in the show notes. And as soon as the documentary, Made in Ethiopia, becomes available for everybody else, I hope that you’ll go out and support Xinyan and Max who just did an absolutely amazing job. So, always fun, Cobus, to be able to recommend these great documentaries and these great films.

Cobus: Yeah, absolutely. And this is particularly an amazing one. Really see it if you get a chance. Absolutely see it.

Eric: So, that’ll do it for this edition of the show. Once again, we want to invite everybody to check out the work that we are doing in the same space, trying to achieve the same mission in many ways that Xinyan was talking about in terms of bringing some understanding to what the Chinese are doing along the Silk Road in places like Ethiopia and whatnot. The best way to support the work we’re doing is to subscribe to the China Global South Project. Every day, we’re updating it with stories, you get newsletters, we have an AI powered chatbot, we have transcripts of the podcast. The team is doing some amazing videos. And we have some incredible data sets that are coming out. And we’re going to be launching a whole bunch of research projects in the next few weeks that are going to be just incredible. I can’t wait to tell you about all the cool things that we’re doing.

Cobus is putting together some fantastic work on the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. We’re going to launch a whole package of content around that, but that needs your support. And so go to We do appreciate your support. And if you would just like to make a donation to us, you can now do that. Just go to the homepage, you’ll see a yellow button up there. And for our Patreon supporters, thank you. This work would not be possible without you. So until next time, for Cobus van Staden in Johannesburg, I’m Eric Olander — thank you so much for listening.

Outro: The discussion continues online. Tag us on Twitter @ChinaGSProject and visit us at If you speak French, check out our full coverage and AfrikChine on Twitter. That’s Afrik, with a K, and you’ll also find links to our sites and social media channels in Arabic.

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