China as a cultural threat in Ethiopia: From food to cultural appropriation

"Donkey Power, Ethiopia" by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In Ethiopia donkeys are solely used for transportation and similarly to domestic animals like dogs and cats are not used for food consumption. Image by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Officially, China and Ethiopia boast a strong partnership. Ethiopia has attracted nearly seven hundred Chinese enterprises and is China’s second-largest loan recipient in Africa. Ethiopia’s fast economic growth combined with the embrace of manufacturing and industrial parks, built by and modeled after China, have even led some news outlets to describe Ethiopia as “the China of Africa.” Ethiopia’s main political parties, the Prosperity party, and prior to that, the EPRDF have maintained strong relations with the Chinese Communist Party. Ethiopia is also one of China’s key Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) partners in Africa.

In Ethiopian popular culture, however, the Chinese presence is often seen as a multifaceted cultural threat. On the one hand, there are widespread concerns expressed through social media about the Chinese community as a bearer of exotic cultural practices, especially when it comes to eating habits. On the other, there are anxieties about Chinese cultural appropriation of Ethiopian traditional culture, such as cheaper versions of China-made Ethiopian crafts and garments in local stores and markets. 

As in other countries that have signed onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the arrival of the Chinese migrant and business communities into Ethiopia created some friction. It is challenging to determine the precise numbers of Chinese residents in Ethiopia, but some estimates suggest there are at least 60,000. 

Food: A sensitive issue

These tensions on the Ethiopian side are often expressed through discussions of  Chinese residents’ eating habits. In particular Chinese residents are accused of violating the food customs of Ethiopia. Ethiopian cuisine largely consists of cooked vegetables and lentils, as well as spicy meat dishes and stews, all served on a sour flatbread made out of teff grain, injera. Meat is restricted to lamb, beef, and chicken, and seafood (with the exception of simple fish) is rarely consumed. Chinese residents, in turn, are often portrayed as voracious consumers of forbidden animals, like donkeys, and also of exotic and even illicit items like snakes, insects and rats. 

Ethiopian social media commentators criticize Chinese willingness to eat donkeys. Some comments allege that donkey consumption by the Chinese is taking place at a mass scale. One piece asserts that up to one million donkeys have been illegally taken from Ethiopian farmers and sold to Chinese donkey slaughterhouses that use them to produce the traditional medicine ejiao. This medicine, made out of donkey skin, is used in China for improving blood circulation. The social media post expresses anxiety about donkeys disappearing within 10–15 years in Ethiopia if this mass sale and slaughter is not stopped. Some Ethiopian media, like the private newspaper, Ethiopian Reporter, also reported widespread concerns about donkey disappearance. Citing a study carried out by Brooke Ethiopia, one article notes that “the Ejiao producing industry in China is seriously endangering the lives and livelihoods of millions of poor Ethiopians.”

In Ethiopia, donkeys are solely used for transportation and — similarly to domestic animals like dogs and cats — are not meant for food consumption. In rural areas, donkeys are especially revered, as they are used to transport goods, particularly by women and young girls.

According to the Donkey Sanctuary, a UK non-profit, nearly 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population depend on donkeys. Ethiopian commentators point to the dangers posed by donkey slaughter and export to Ethiopia’s rural development, but also to its moral fabric. One posting, for instance, notes that an opening of the donkey slaughterhouse is against Ethiopia’s holy and religious traditions. Ironically, this commentator suggested it might be acceptable for the Chinese to open their own donkey breeding houses, as long as they don’t take away Ethiopia’s donkeys.

Other food-related commentaries offered sarcastic and dramatic exaggerations of Chinese eating habits. One Facebook post tells the following joke: “If Adam and Eve were Chinese… we could have been still in heaven. Because the Chinese Adam and Eve would have eaten the snake instead of the forbidden fruit.” Another post jokingly urges the Ethiopian government to turn to the Chinese community to deal with the locust crisis, but not by providing technologies, but rather by having them eat the locusts. 

It is important to acknowledge the blurring of exoticized and racialized messages in these food-related comments. By deploying food tropes, Ethiopian social media commentators also appear to question the humanity of Chinese residents, portraying them as repulsive and distant “others.” In one video posting, this message is communicated more directly. The video features a group of famous Ethiopian actors at a Chinese restaurant, ridiculing Chinese food. As the Chinese waitress serves different ingredients for a hotpot dish, including seafood, the two actors make fun of the ingredients, especially the seafood. The comments about food, however, also transgress to Chinese people. When one actor goes into the bathroom and finds his friend still sitting at the table, he says: “If you marry her there won’t be any problem. You will send her to the house yard, she would eat anything she finds.” Echoing the commentary about a Chinese tenant eating rats, this remark portrays the Chinese waitress as wicked and almost dangerous.

These associations of Chinese people with exotic eating habits have taken on a new geopolitical significance in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Some online commentators attributed the consumption of prohibited foods to the initial COVID outbreak in Wuhan, suggesting that God was angry and punished Chinese people. Others are more direct in linking global suffering from the pandemic to Chinese food choices: “Chinese ate the food …and peoples in the world are washing their hands.” 

Souvenir production and cultural appropriation

Other than the differing cultural habits of Chinese communities, the topic of Chinese cultural appropriation has emerged in popular discourse about China in Ethiopia. The discussion on the Chinese production of Ethiopian traditional coffee pots is a notable example. Ethiopia prides itself on being one of the world’s largest coffee producers and is also known as the birthplace of coffee. The traditional coffee brewing technique uses elegant elongated black clay pots called jebena that are made by Ethiopian craftsmen. But recently, China-made jebena have appeared in Ethiopian markets and ceramics stores. 

The public reaction has been mixed, ranging from some admiration of Chinese efficiency and even hopes for modernizing Ethiopian jebena production, to concerns that some Chinese are claiming jebena as their own invention, as well as critiques of its inauthentic features, such as its white color rather than traditional black. Some netizens claim that buying China-made jebena is disrespectful of the traditional product, and jeopardizes the income of Ethiopian craftsmen. 

Chinese manufacturing of traditional Ethiopian garments is another heated topic of discussion. Traditional garments, made of delicate, thin cotton, typically used for religious ceremonies are often expensive and hand-made. This changed with Chinese manufacturing, which produces a much cheaper version made from typically synthetic materials. While these cheaper goods are sold and purchased at Ethiopia’s markets, Chinese production has been widely condemned, with some critics even targeting the consumers themselves. “We don’t wish a happy holiday for those who wear Chinese made cultural clothes!!!” reads a post on Facebook. 

Other critical commentaries shame local officials, in this case in the Amhara region, for accepting Ethiopian traditional dresses made in China and using them during the Ashenda Celebration. Some comments address Ethiopia’s public more broadly for failing to develop Ethiopia’s hand-weaving industry into an exportable commodity, and instead, letting the Chinese appropriate and monetize the traditional Ethiopian clothing designs. 

Public interest in Chinese exotic eating habits and in the potential appropriation of Ethiopian traditional culture speaks of the larger rifts in Sino-Ethiopian encounters. At the official level, the Sino-Ethiopian relationship appears to continue to evolve as a partnership. Recently, 300 thousand doses of Chinese vaccine were delivered to Ethiopia. Despite this gesture of China’s generosity, there are widespread societal concerns in Ethiopia with China’s growing presence masked as exotic and dangerous, and Chinese economic force as intrusive and unwelcome when it comes to “modernizing” Ethiopian culture.

Ethiopian officials will continue to celebrate Chinese loans, investments, and vaccines, but the flow of capital might not translate into deeper cultural encounters. If anything, economic engagement will continue to coexist with cultural fears and subtle expressions of resistance in Ethiopian society.

This story is part of a Civic Media Observatory investigation into competing narratives about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and explores how societies and communities hold differing perceptions of potential benefits and harms of Chinese-led development. To learn more about this project and its methods, click here.

1 comment

  • Selamta B.

    China’s “cultural threat” to Ethiopia pales in comparison to Western capitalist culture that has already destroyed societies. Western social media pumps out nonstop violent and sexualized content, and provides a platform for fake news that feeds endless ethnic conflicts.

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