After reading the Human Rights Watch report, I shared the following comments with a reporter:
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report is well documented in the case of the three regions that it investigated. The report concludes that in these three regions HRW "found that the government is systematically using government services as a tool of repression."
According to HRW, repression often seems to mean that the EPRDF uses government programs to ensure support of the EPRDF. I have no doubt that this happens.
HRW then documents large donor financial support for the government's development and service programs and concludes that the donor community is aiding and abetting "repression" in Ethiopia. There is an element of truth to the charge if you accept that government services and programs for ensuring support of the EPRDF constitute "repression" and that donor aid is largely responsible for the existence of these programs. The more you string out this line of argumentation, the more tenuous the HRW allegation becomes.
In any assistance program as large as the one in Ethiopia, there will be cases of abuse. It is up to the donor community to make every effort to minimize the abuse. The Development Assistance Group (DAG) Ethiopia implicitly acknowledged the existence of abuse when it said the programs "we support are not immune to the potential for aid misuse and have therefore included safeguard measures to address these risks."
The DAG explicitly disagreed with the HRW allegation that there is widespread systematic abuse of development aid in Ethiopia. The truth is probably somewhere between the HRW conclusions and the DAG denials.
HRW noted that "Ethiopia is one of the most challenging countries in the world to carry out human rights research...." I have no doubt that is true.
On the other hand, it is fascinating that the HRW "findings are based on interviews with more than 200 individuals during three separate research missions in Ethiopia between June and December 2009." I wonder how many developing countries would deny HRW access to even carry out such a study.
As for your question about the impact of the Ethio-China relationship on this situation, I don't think it has a major role. While China provides assistance without reference to human rights and democratization concerns, it provides very little grant aid to Ethiopia. Most Chinese aid consists of loans, albeit low interest, which do not compete with predominantly grant aid from the western donor community.
On the other hand, Ethiopia may look at Chinese aid as a substitute for loans from the World Bank, IMF and regional development banks.