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What Kenyans think about the Chinese link

By Leonard Khafafa | September 26th 2018

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i’s efforts to rid Kenya of illegal immigrants recently resulted in the arrest of 15 Chinese nationals for allegedly engaging in prostitution. A social media commentator noted, tongue-in-cheek, that the Chinese had been arrested for “doing jobs that should be done by Kenyans”. While the commentary was intended for locker room or bar room consumption, its levity belies what Kenyans really think about the Chinese and their fears of an insidious penetration of the country by the world’s second biggest economy.

China is steadily on the path to becoming the next global superpower. Through its Belt and Road Initiative, it has created a network of overland inter-connecting infrastructure corridors across most of the regions of the world where it seeks to exert influence. Africa is one such region because of resources. China sees it as a market for its goods.

Unlike in the past where influence in Africa was attained by military conquests, the Belt and Road Initiative is premised on soft power. Soft power eschews forceful takeovers by soldiers or sanctions against those who don’t toe the line. It is a gambit to win the heart and mind of a country.

In Kenya, China’s soft power has been through big-ticket infrastructural developments, starting with the Thika Superhighway to the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Mombasa to Nairobi. The Thika Superhighway has certainly improved the flow of traffic and made hitherto unreachable places accessible.

Mega projects

But the jury is still out on the benefits of the SGR. Before the advent of these two mega projects, little was known about China besides kung fu movies and the love of figurines made from the ivory of African elephants. Today, there are daily flights from Nairobi to China and many traders routinely make visits to procure goods from Guangzhou.

But many Kenyans do not think the relationship with the Chinese is rosy. The lopsided trade balance between the two countries crystallises a growing problem for Kenya. We import plenty from China but export relatively little. Even when we export mineral products or animal hides, they are usually in their rawest forms devoid of the benefit of processing across entire value chains.

Second, there is a perception that China does not always give Kenya the best of her products. These are reserved for First World countries. In some quarters, “Made in China” has become synonymous with electrical cables that burn or equipment that malfunctions within days of purchase. It has not helped that a growing number of counterfeit items in the market have been traced back to China.

Third, the Chinese are perceived as being the sole beneficiaries of the soft power policy. Kenya is in hock to international lenders to the tune of trillions of shillings. China has been lumped with this lot, having overtaken them to become Kenya’s biggest lender.

Expansionist goals

The projects that the Chinese fund don’t seem to add much value to Kenyans but are deemed to meet the strategic expansionist goals of China. It has not helped that China has been at the centre of a recurring narrative of resource exploitation in Africa. From Angola, where much of the oil revenue goes towards settling Chinese debt, to Djibouti where a military base has been offered to the China as part of a debt-equity swap, the soft power policy is unravelling to reveal a debt trap.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to China’s soft power policy in Kenya has been the dank jungle of racist practices meted out by its nationals resident in Kenya. Local SGR employees complain of insults, beatings and threats of summary dismissals for minor infractions. Recently, a Chinese man was captured on camera insulting the President of Kenya.

While this may not necessarily inform the official attitude of China, it reinforces the stereotype of the Chinese as odious characters who do not respect their hosts. The Chinese are also seen as a parsimonious lot who import cement, steel and even foodstuff from their countries, and do nothing to empower the businesses of their host communities.

China’s dominance of world trade is an inescapable fact. But we can borrow from the example of the US to engage in ways that benefit us. A starting point would be to impose steep tariffs on Chinese imports. This would have the desired effect of having China set up its factories in Kenya.

Kenyans would benefit from transfer technologies and employment opportunities. These are the sort of jobs Kenyans need and look forward to, not those done by illegal migrants in shadowy parts of the city!

Mr Khafafa is vice chairman, Kenya-Turkey Business Council


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