China is transforming Kenya and the rest of Africa through infrastructure projects and investments. Many Africans welcome the developments, while others worry about Beijing’s motives and the long-term impact on their countries.
With China’s Belt and Road initiative bringing temporary workers from the world’s most populous country, neighborhoods such as Kilimani in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, are filled with billboards in Mandarin for Chinese-run casinos, karaoke centers and traditional Chinese medicine clinics. Such areas have not been officially dubbed “Chinatown” —yet.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is on a visit, January 4 to 7, to the East African countries of Kenya, Eritrea and Comoros. Wang’s efforts to strengthen ties support the Belt and Road initiative goal of enhancing China’s land and sea trade in Asia, Europe and Africa.
Africans have taken a mostly positive view of the Asian newcomers.
A recent survey conducted by Afrobarometer of 34 African countries from 2019 to 2020 found that while some were concerned about being heavily indebted to China, 63% of Africans viewed China as a positive external influence on the continent. In comparison, 60% and 57% viewed as a positive influence the United States and United Nations agencies, respectively.
China’s presence can be seen throughout Nairobi. Construction projects are ubiquitous, and every neighborhood seems to be reinventing itself with apartment blocks and malls erected in months, sometimes weeks. Many Kenyans say the Chinese are largely responsible for such development.
The Chinese presence in Kenya is a net positive, said Tyson Nuthu, who works at the rock climbing gym Climb BlueSky.
“The traffic is something we all complain about. Projects like the Nairobi Western Bypass alleviate the problem. Driving to Lukenya (Nairobi’s closest outdoor crag) has been better since Mombasa Road is almost completed,” he said in a phone interview with Muhabarishaji. “Plus, I think seeing a different work ethic is good for Kenyans. It drives up the competition a bit.”
Speaking last month at the site of the Nairobi Expressway toll road, a Chinese-backed infrastructure project, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said his country’s relationship with China is “mutually beneficial — that is, based on win-win.” He said an improved infrastructure would make life easier for people and was “key” to Kenya’s economy.
Critics of Chinese presence
For years, however, analysts have speculated about China’s intentions on the African continent, with some accusing it of “malicious” behavior. In 2011, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described China’s actions as “new colonialism.”
Chinese infrastructure deals are secretive and bad for the local economy, some critics contend.
Laura Otieno, a civil engineer on the Nairobi Western Bypass, which circumvents traffic congestion in the capital city, works mainly with Chinese firms. In an interview with Muhabarishaji, she said it had taken her some time to overcome the cultural differences and language barrier when working with the Chinese.
“For the most part, we get along,” Otieno said. “But what I don’t like is that we celebrate their holidays, such as Chinese New Year. Why should we? We’re in Kenya.”
Meanwhile, Paul Chepsoi, program director at Endorois Welfare Council, a community-based human rights organization in Nakuru, has doubts about China’s intentions abroad.
“I once attended a meeting where a Chinese investor was present,” Chepsoi said in an email interview with Muhabarishaji. “At some point, I raised my hand to ask a question on how the community will benefit from the natural resource he intended to collect from the community. He totally ignored my question.”
Soft power diplomacy
Yuan Wang, a fellow at the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program, said in a phone interview with Muhabarishaji that “China is relatively new to this game of facilitating cultural exchange and the overall diplomacy space.”
She added, “The different culture of ‘doing the work’ rather than ‘saying the things’ contributes to the perception that China lacks diplomacy.”
In 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping described China’s expansion strategies, saying, “We will strengthen people-to-people and cultural exchanges with other countries, giving prominence to Chinese culture while also drawing on other cultures.”
Xi also talked about improving the “capacity for engaging in international communication so as to tell China’s stories well; present a true, multidimensional, and panoramic view of China; and enhance our country’s cultural soft power.”
Beijing has embarked on this mission through a variety of initiatives that have included donating 200,000 doses of Sinopharm’s COVID-19 vaccines to Kenya in September 2021 and launching opportunities such as the Silk Road Global News Awards, a contest for Kenyan journalists that bestows cash prizes on winners.
The Chinese embassy also regularly cultivates China-Kenya relations. Its website states that even as the world undergoes major transformations, the embassy “remains committed to promoting the long-term and healthy growth of China-Kenya relations and protecting the lawful rights and interests of overseas Chinese nationals.”
In African countries, including Kenya, China has established Confucius Institutes, which teach Chinese language and culture in foreign universities. The institutes are largely funded by the Chinese Education Ministry.
Some students worry that the institutes are self-censoring, deliberately avoiding subjects that are politically sensitive in China. In addition, a report to the U.S. Senate found that “Confucius Institute funding comes with strings that can compromise academic freedom.” The Chinese instructors, for example, sign contracts with Beijing pledging not to damage China’s national interests.
There is also the annual Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the training of nearly 1,000 African journalists. But some see the latter effort as questionable, given China’s reputation for censorship.
Effectiveness of China’s efforts
Mario Esteban, a senior analyst focusing on Chinese foreign policy at the Autonomous University of Madrid, said in a phone interview with Muhabarishaji that China’s focus on infrastructure projects has helped it burnish its reputation. Kenyans using roads or schools can see the direct benefits of a Chinese presence.
“In terms of soft power, quite a lot of Africans believe that the Chinese are a useful partner,” Esteban said.
Chepsoi remains skeptical about China’s intentions toward his country.
“Most developed countries have been using this soft power approach for a long time ––that’s why their economies have doubled at the expense of developing countries,” he said.
The Chinese embassy in Nairobi did not respond to multiple requests for comments for this story.