China’s Neo-Colonialism- Colonising Kenya

China’s Neo-Colonialism- Colonising Kenya

One can hear ‘Ni Hao’ and ‘Xie Xie’ very often in the streets of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. While this may appear to be a passing comment made to be taken at face value, the remark actually demonstrates the profound penetration of Chinese influence in Kenya, even reaching ordinary Kenyan citizens, at the level of cab drivers.

This influence takes many forms, the most famous of which is infrastructure investment projects; however, other manifestations of Chinese soft power are equally visible and concerning, including media, governance, and even archaeology.

The level of this influence became apparent when in October last year, Kenya’s President William Ruto sought US$ 1 billion more in loans from China (Reuters) at the 10th Anniversary Belt and Road Initiative meeting held in Beijing. This is despite rising public debt that now reaches US$ 70 billion in Kenya, according to official figures for 2022/2023.

Of primary concern is China’s disinterest in democracy and promotion of principles in Africa that tend to support and promote authoritarian forms of government; Kenya is no exception. The idea China has promoted in Kenya and Africa at large, is that democracy does not equal to success.

The Communist Party of China (CPC) says it promotes stability, rather than necessarily outright speaking out against democracy itself. China’s narrative is also that leadership is not a popularity contest and that inefficient systems end up producing leaders like Donald Trump.

These ideas are actively being propagated in institutions like the CPC-sponsored party school in Tanzania. The target audience of the school is the ruling political elites of Tanzania, (South China Morning Post) and the school’s existence is tied to the history of Tanzania’s liberation movement and China’s role within that.

China’s espousal of dictatorship as opposed to democracy is a powerful statement coming against the background of an increasing trend of coups across West Africa. The fact that coup leaders are preferred to pseudo-democratic leaders is alarming and a significant statement on the outcome of democratic processes and seems to back China’s claim. Africans are asking themselves whether democratic institutions are delivering democratic outcomes, and whether their leaders actually represent their interests. The Kenyan government should be concerned that a high level of Chinese influence could erode transparency and thus pave the way for longer term authoritarianism down the road.

One aspect of Chinese penetration of Kenya is the huge presence they have in the Kenyan media and its impact on reporting on China. A heady mixture of disinformation and propaganda, the Chinese effort is to show themselves in a good light.

There is a partnership (Xinhua) between the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and the Chinese government, wherein senior KBC reporters are taken on trips to China to then report favourably on China.

This is reminiscent of China’s methods adopted in Nepal and indicates a wider international trend, where China sponsors journalists to visit their country in return for preferential treatment in news dissemination, upon return to the home nation. Tens of thousands of Kenyans are going on such trips, as the CPC offers scholarships for budding journalists and opportunities for young people to go on extended tours of China.

Ironically, people have begun to feel that China is safer and cheaper than the West, and as long as political conversations are avoided, then life there is just fine.

Through the media and social, Kenyans are being made to believe that CPC’s intention is to counter the negative view of China as generated by by the United States. Further, it is contended that China’s goal is only to have people understand the context, not necessarily influence.

There is also a large Xinhua bureau, in Kenya’s capital, whose entry into the country remains shrouded in mystery. Also, Chinese cultural centres propagating Chinese values have become strong features of local universities in Kenya, including the University of Nairobi’s Confucius Institute. Many Kenyans in the bureaucracy are also learning Mandarin as it is a popular language to learn for upwards progression.

Chinatowns have popped up all over Africa in the last two decades. Kenya itself has a population of approximately 50,000 Chinese nationals. More than Chinatowns, it is the shops run by Chinese which sell cheap goods that has attracted attention. One year ago, locals in Nairobi protested the presence of the China Square Shop (BBC) on the outskirts of the city. With cheap goods, the shop built a sizeable popularity.

However, locals also found that it was biting into their own sales and this led to a street march against the Chinese establishment, leading to the temporary closure of the shop. Another such anecdote is that of Chinese nationals going to villages in Kenya with trucks full of slot machines. Even though this practice is banned in Kenya, it demonstrates the sheer level of penetration the Chinese have managed to attain in Kenya.

China has also been quietly investing in technological infrastructure in Kenya’s rural areas. Star Times set-top boxes imported from China (Los Angeles Times) have proliferated in rural Kenya as they are cheap and affordable and countless ads and shops in the rural Kenya during the drive between Diani, Mombasa, and Tsavo National Park promote Star Times.

The aim is to ensure that Chinese culture enters all homes in Kenya; with TV channels loaded on the boxes including CGTN and even Chinese cultural content like kung fu movies. China is also making more films set in Africa.

On the cultural front, China is also involved in Lamu, the site where the legendary Chinese voyager Zheng He landed in Africa (South China Morning Post) many centuries ago. Archaeological teams have been involved in digs and excavations in this area and the Chinese government has even attempted to identify local descendants of Zheng He from Lamu.

Going one step further, China taught them mandarin, given them Chinese names, and taken them to China as part of propaganda tours and exercises. The CPC reportedly even carried out genetic testing of those descendants.

This is all part of a wider attempt by the CPC through archaeological projects around the world, to boost their narrative of China being at the centre of the so-called new Silk Road and highlighting historical links between China and host nations. Kenya is just one dot on the Chinese map of Africa. Having entrenched itself in Kenya, China is making sure that it’s legacy is long-lasting, however, negative it may be.

This is a crucial lesson for Africa, one that will stay for a long time, but with few countries, learning the actual lessons


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