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Africa’s umbilical relationship with China leaves the West seething

By Emmanuel Were and Mark Kapchanga

Kenya: Africa and China share an umbilical relationship that is blossoming each day. The Chinese are all over Africa building roads, investing in real estate and tourism.

In Kenya, Thika superhighway cements their presence. And as Chinese investment grows in Kenya, the country’s ties with the West are fading fast.  What is China doing that US and Britain are not or have not been doing?

The principle of ‘business is business’ is what drives China’s interests in Africa. To China, politics and business do not mix. This contrasts to the Western style that imposes a market economy and democracy on countries that are even not ready for it.

China’s stand against embargoes, which the US and Europe have perfected, is seen as a major conduit towards its deep penetration in the continent. In Kenya, the Asian nation is bolstering its presence following the completion of Thika superhighway.

“The main experiment in East Africa was the construction of the 50km road. It is a great success story. More construction deals are lined up,” said Zhang Wei, a manager with a Chinese firm in Kenya.

The state-centrism policy, where non-state actors are excluded from international assignments, has seen China beat traditional players such as British firms in mega construction businesses in Kenya. To date, there are more than 800 firms in Africa with interlocking directorships with the Chinese Communist Party.

From roads, China is spreading its operations to energy. Near the Kenya- Ethiopia border, a huge hydropower plant is being put up to supply power in over six countries in the region.

“China’s foreign expenditure for Africa has been soaring. In the next three years, the continent is expected to receive $20 billion (Sh172.3 trillion). We give what we want to what Africa needs. The aid emphasises on infrastructure work,” Mr Wei said.

Some $15 billion (Sh129.2 trillion) is today being spent on more than 900 roads and energy projects in Africa. This is seen as an extension of Beijing’s key pillar of reciprocity and mutual benefit. Beijing feels indebted to Africa’s push as a continent to support China’s foreign policy. This strategy has been used in the past as a diplomatic offensive to regain its seat at the United Nations. ?

Unlike the Western aid, China’s aid doesn’t come with conditions. The rationale is that projects avoid avenues for possible corruption. They also generally produce quick and tangible results. That approach has led to criticisms that the support is fuelling poor governance in the continent. The US and Europe have also brought to the fore the issue of the ineffectiveness of the aid, which they allege is not bettering Africa’s wellbeing.

However, the Chinese vehemently defend their non-interference policy. They claim it strengthens historical ties between China and Africa. It also arouses a shared sense of injustice by the West.

China’s special representative to Darfur Liu Guijin recently argued that China will never attach any kind of political conditions to its aid and development projects, because the “provision of assistance is for the benefit of the people and not for political purposes or for showing off to the outside world”. But according to Wikileaks, China’s aid to Africa has strings attached.

Leaked US embassy cables showed in 2010 that Africa governments like dealing with China, but they shouldn’t forget that China’s interest in Africa is driven by foreign policy and commercial objectives.

Job opportunities

The cable quoted former US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, who described China as “a very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals”.

“The Chinese are dealing with the Mugabes and Al Bashirs of the world, which is a contrarian political model. China is not in Africa for altruistic reasons,” he said.  “China is in Africa primarily for China. A secondary reason for China’s presence is to secure votes in the United Nations from African countries.”

While China is transforming the country’s infrastructure, critics say Kenyans are paying a huge price for this. Many Chinese firms bring in their employees, a move that has denied locals job opportunities.

Their argument is that due to yawning cultural differences, many Kenyans have failed to meet the desired minimum threshold to work as supervisors in their firms.

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