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The road divides

Shenzhen’s urban rail transit project in Addis Ababa 

Chinese metro companies go overseas; business not as usual

Chinese metro companies actively look for overseas markets and opportunities under the Belt and Road Initiative. Several metro companies are conducting urban rail transit projects abroad. They won bids due to their rich experience at home. However, an urban rail transit project is a systematic work that consists of planning, design, construction, equipment, and operation. It involves human and non-human actors and their complex interactions. Each project must coordinate with the host country regarding the political system, planning and development control, and technological standards.

This paper presented a concrete BRI case using the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit project. It was the first light rail transit project with BRI label, the first overseas project managed by Shenzhen Metro Cooperation, and the first urban rail transit system in sub-Saharan Africa. We unravelled how this project worked on the ground through in-depth interviews of company staff from China and local staff and elites from Ethiopia, contract and document analysis of the light rail transit (formation, implementation, and operation).


Specifically, first, we depicted the line alignment and station design problems within the political and financial context. We found the current lack of integration with the city cannot be understood from previous station design analysis. We need to examine the design choice under financial constraints using China loans and professed modernity needs of the Ethiopian developmental state. We also need to understand the metro development model in China, as the Chinese contractors could provide remediation if they had the know-how.  Second, we analysed Ethiopia’s actions and motivations in the management contract design and implementation, which took up by Shenzhen Metro Cooperation. It was an operation and maintenance service contract, emphasising staff training and knowledge transfer to Ethiopia. The recipient state has substantial control of the cooperation. However, the results might be not as what Ethiopia expected. Third, we reflected on interactions between China and Ethiopia project actors under BRI, which has become the fundamental concept of China’s foreign policy. Based on this, we discussed the long-term impact and sustainability of AALRT and China’s BRI infrastructure building in Africa.

What happens next in Addis Ababa will greatly interest scholars and recipients of BRI projects and loans. We argue that BRI may bring infrastructure to developing countries. The multiple interests being served and resultant dynamics at each project stage should be factored in when understanding BRI and evaluating its success. 

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How to cite:

Guibo Sun, Yi Guo (2021) From home to abroad: Shenzhen's belt and road urban rail transit project in Addis Ababa. Under Review at World Development

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