There is something clever about the Chinese that enables them to penetrate the rest of the world quietly. They are brilliant in self-effacing and stress their weakness even as they flex geopolitical muscles. They study other states in order to determine the mode of engagement. In the process, China emerged as a global force that others have no choice but to acknowledge.
The subtleness of Chinese global penetration confounds Euro entities. In European cities, full of large shopping malls and department stores that operate mechanically, the Chinese found ways of operating kiosk-like outlets on day to day trinkets, opening when the big ones closed and offering reasonable prices. Thus thousands of little kiosks, bars, and restaurants survive in Europe by being convenient to ordinary consumers, when others are inconvenient. China then upgraded to investing big and lending money to other countries; the United States owes China more than 3 trillion dollars. Although China surpassed the economies of the previous “First World”, the Chinese still insist that they are part of the Third World.
The Chinese might have borrowed “think big” from the United States, economic but not political, when Deng Xiaoping opened up to liberalisation which he baptised “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. While places where Americans were known to build big, like Texas and California, Deng invited Western investors to China and amused them with his homilies about the irrelevancy of the colour of the cat as long as it caught the mice.
Since the mice he wanted to catch were economic, not political, he ensured that all understood that the Communist Party of China rules China. He had no qualms quashing disturbances at the Tiananmen Square in 1989, China’s symbolic political centre, and return to promoting the local and global catching of social economic mice. China did well in producing for its huge domestic market and ended up with surpluses which it exported through its global “kiosks”. It made other people, particularly the elite, to trust China in producing not only convenient little things but also big things like roads, big and tall buildings, and even bullet speed trains that conceptually cut time and distance to increase “wealth”.
China learned how to win tenders for projects in Europe, the Americas, in Asia, and in Africa by managing costs, delivering on time without strange excuses, and by having engineers that were conscious of the need to protect the image and reputation of the Communist Party of China.
To emerge as an economic powerhouse, however, New China avoided the mistakes it made in the 15th Century when it became inward looking in the mistaken belief that everyone else was a “barbarian” with nothing to offer the Middle Kingdom. Liberated in 1949, New China was determined not to repeat the mistake of inward looking and so it successfully looked outward.
The global economic success was magnetic as visitors flock to China looking for the formula for success. England’s Teresa May, wondering how to exit Europe because voters wanted BREXIT, went to China to strike deals. Frenchman Emmanuel Macron preceded her saying he wants Europe to be part of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR). Since the entire OBOR strategy aims at pulling Europe to China, whether it is through the land or the sea, Macron simply wants France to be involved. And African countries also show interest in partaking of Chinese geopolitical magnetism.
The Chinese reciprocate the African interests and go into Africa seeking two things, the untapped immense African wealth and geopolitical compatibility. This partly explains the African portion of Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which, although it is comparatively small, appears big where it exists. Thus the African port cities of Dar es Salaam, Mombasa, Lamu, Djibouti, and the new Cairo are all part of the sea “silk road” that starts in China in one end and leads to Europe on the other. Kenya’s section of OBOR, the SGR starting in Mombasa and LAPSETT starting in Lamu, is projected to move westwards to Duala in Cameroon. It is very small in the big China global outward look.
The challenge to Kenya and other African states is to learn from China’s global magnetism, stressing everything to “Chinese Characteristic”, meaning Chinese interests first. Thus the only perspective that counts in global engagements, and given reality of Global OBOR and other power manifestations, is Kenya’s national interest. Uhuru’s administration, with its stress on Pan Africanist primacy, cannot afford to use geopolitical lenses that are not Kenyan. To do that would be disastrous.
Prof Munene teaches history and international relations at USIU-Africa