What next for Sino-Kenya relations 60 years later?

Tianmen Square in Beijing, China. [XN Iraki, Standard]

By the time the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, the United States had been independent for 173 years.

Europe and Japan were emerging from the trauma of World War Two (WW II). By the time Kenya got her uhuru, modern China was only 14 years old, a teenager.

But it seems unlike other teenagers, she avoided juvenile delinquency. The spirit of China was always there in language, culture and a deep sense of victimhood. Remember the opium wars? 

Like Japan and Germany who 'avenged' the loss of WWII with an economic miracle, China decided to avenge the historical humiliation with an economic miracle. 

Was the cultural revolution a prerequisite for the economic transformation of China? Sinologists talk. All we all know is that after China opened up in 1978, foreign direct investment (FDI) poured in, and the country has never been the same again.  

While we knew China as a communist country, a lot was going on beneath the facade of communism. The closest we heard of China while growing up was the Tazara railway from Zambia to Dar es Salaam, long before the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). 

China bid her time and then thrust into the global arena focusing on the most neglected continent, Africa and big infrastructure projects. The West had focused more on soft issues like democracy and human rights, where the continent has floundered since the wind of change blew off colonialism but not its hangovers. 

Big infrastructure projects have a triple advantage. It endeared China to Africa without political conditions. It has high barriers to entry, few countries can fund such mega projects. The key stakeholders in big infrastructure projects are the governments which make it easier to negotiate. 

SGR Mombasa Terminus. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Within two decades, China’s influence has emerged, as seen in concrete. Western influence was heard through religion, and call for democracy and human rights. Not much concrete.

China’s economic muscle and its strategic application across Africa have earned it a seat on the political high table on the continent, especially since the start of the current century.  

China has greatly built its trade and financial relations with sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of Kenya, it has in the process emerged as Kenya’s biggest bilateral financier and trade partner. Most of the momentum described above has been achieved through the financing of game-changing mega infrastructural projects in Kenya.

Northern Corridor

These projects include the SGR line from Mombasa to Naivasha, which at a cost of Sh372 billion, remains one of the most expensive infrastructure projects in the region.

Conceptualised in 2014 by Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda, the SGR is meant to improve freight and passenger transport on the Northern Corridor as a major aid to trade by the three countries through Mombasa.

The economic impact of SGR will be felt further after some recent announcements that Uganda will start building the Malaba-Kampala line this August; while Kenya also plans to extend the track to Kisumu, Malaba and Isiolo in a Sh2.1 trillion project.

The Chinese portfolio of big infrastructure projects in Kenya also includes the Thika highway, which links Nairobi with the agriculturally and industrially rich Mt Kenya region, which is also fast emerging as residential real estate for the city’s workers.

There is also a growing inventory of other important roads and the oil storage terminal at Kipevu, in Mombasa, among others. Other Chinese-built and funded projects in Kenya are the Nairobi Expressway, Lamu Port and the Likoni Bridge in Mombasa.

These projects have seen China emerge as Kenya’s biggest bilateral lender since 2015. China’s funding model would appear to be based on a preference for turnkey projects; getting involved in a project from undertaking the project’s feasibility study, funding arrangement, vendor procurement, construction and, in some instances, its initial operations before handover, after a stipulated time, to the host authority.

The SGR, for example, was executed as an EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contract by a Chinese company – China Road and Bridge Construction (CRBC). Its funding was through a loan from the China Exim Bank, which Kenya is repaying. The Nairobi expressway is a build, operate transfer (BOT) project.

Chinese funding to Kenya is suddenly on the decline, going by Budget estimates recently tabled by Treasury. Kenya is expected to receive just Sh1.74 billion from China in 2023/24, the lowest since 2008.

China’s economic muscle and its strategic application across Africa have earned it a seat on the political high table on the continent. [iStockphoto]

It was Sh29.5 billion in 2021/22 and Sh71.2 billion in 2017.

These new projects like the extension of SGR might bolster Chinese funding to Kenya. But wait a minute; noted how Chinese prowess in construction has trickled down to the private sector?

Just walk around the city and see the number of private buildings under Chinese-owned construction firms. Someone recently told me he is looking for a Chinese firm to build his residential house!

China is running a parallel programme targeting soft issues. Noted the Chinese newspapers on our newsstands? Noted the Chinese TV station on your pay TV subscription? Noted the Confucius Institutes across Africa teaching the Chinese language and culture?

Noted Kenyans study and working in China?

Western religion

If we use the time to get into our mind and soul as the measure of success, China has taken a shorter time compared with the West.

What can’t be contested is that on concrete, China is ahead. On culture, the West is ahead. Think of Western religion, literature, political system, movies, music and food. What is the Chinese equivalent to hamburgers or our ugali? How many of us can use chopsticks?

What next after 60 years?  It’s unlikely China will slow down on her megastructure projects. The West has not given a concrete counteroffer to Chinese mega projects. What happened to the Nairobi-Mombasa road?

By mid-century, Chinese influence could be noticeable beyond concrete. Did you notice Chinese (Mandarin) will be taught in the competency-based curriculum?

Could we end up quoting more Chinese authors, watching Chinese movies or even taking their names - Xi Onyango or Mei Wanjiku on class registers, just like Jayden, Liam, Charlotte or Angelina? Will Chinese influence fill the vacuum left by the decline of our religion and traditions?

China probably has a strategy to engage Africa in the next 60 years and beyond. She will have to contend with Russia, the other emerging player on the African continent. Russia and China are allies. Could they join hands in the new scramble for Africa? How will the West react?