The past decade has seen the rapid rise of concepts such as the ‘China Model’ and the ‘Beijing Consensus’, yet more recent trends suggest a waning of their popularity. This article finds that the problem with the literature on the China model lies less with the concept itself than with a tendency to apply the term in an atheoretical and unempirical manner. From 2005 until at least 2012, Ethiopian elites from the upper echelons downwards were indeed engaged in a conscious and voluntary attempt to emulate aspects of China's perceived developmental successes. Drawing on interviews with 46 such elites, as well as on theories of lesson-drawing and cross-societal emulation, the study suggests that China may act as an example to countries seeking to achieve rapid modernisation and to navigate the perilous waters of political and economic globalisation. It is only by historicising and contextualising the ‘China Model’ within the older story of selective incorporation by certain ‘latecomer’ countries, however, that its true influence – and limits – can be understood.