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President Kibaki and Ambassador Liu Guangyuan, China "a true friend"

It was Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill who said, “Beware the sleeping dragon, for when she awakes the earth will shake”…

‘When China met Africa’, a new feature film from Nick and Marc Francis the directors of the award-winning ‘Black Gold’ about exploitation in the coffee industry, premiered in London last weekend, the promotional blurb that goes with such events describing it as the, ‘first theatrical feature film to tackle China/Africa relations and the expanding footprint of a rising global power’.

Set in Zambia, ‘When China met Africa’ follows the story of three characters: Mr. Liu who is about to buy his fourth farm; Manager Li who is upgrading one of Zambia’s longest roads and the Zambian Trade Minister who is travelling to China to secure millions of dollars in investment. ‘Through the intimate portrayal of these characters’, as one reviewer put it, ‘the expanding footprint of a global power is laid bare – pointing to a radically different future, not just for Africa but also for the world.’

That the world is changing with the rise of China as a major economic power is without question. The Forum noted that the first person to visit Zambia’s newly elected president Michael Sata was the Chinese Ambassador (‘Zambia’s election of the “King Cobra” and some lessons for Kenya’), surely a sign of the changing times.


Here in Kenya the Daily Nation reported last Thursday that China had donated Sh2bn in relief food for ‘drought-stricken Kenyans’. A further Sh25.6 million was donated by Chinese companies in Kenya.

Three days later and the Sunday Nation, in its ‘Diplomatic watch’ column, ran a piece entitled ‘Why Kenya now looks up to China’, pointing not only to the sizeable donation of relief food supplies but more importantly in the long-term, the expansion of the Nairobi-Thika highway, the construction of the Uhuru Highway-UNEP road and the Northern by-passes.

President Kibaki described China as a “true friend” wrote Walter Menya who declared: ‘China’s growing influence in Kenya, as with the rest of Africa is no longer in doubt. The Asian giant now controls major tenders in development and rehabilitation of infrastructural projects in Kenya and the rest of the continent’.


The Sunday Nation and Walter Menya are of course right but not everyone is happy with China’s rapidly growing influence and some of the consequences arising from it.

According to Wikileaks (Chinese Engagement in Kenya) the former US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger complained in a cable back to Washington that China had ‘taken a place on the high table, as the new darling of Kenya’s ruling elite’.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his friend The Dalai Lama

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for another, is not happy. He was nearly spitting with frustration and anger, accusing his country’s government of being “disgraceful” and worse than the apartheid regime, following South Africa’s refusal to issue his friend the Dalai Lama a visa to enter the country to attend his 80th birthday celebrations.

The Dalai Lama, as spiritual leader of Tibet (in exile) is not well thought of by China’s communist authorities and there was more than a suspicion that South Africa had kowtowed to pressure from China, now one of its major trading partners.

According to this week’s Financial Post (‘Chinese invade River Road’) some of Nairobi’s business community is also none too happy about our Chinese “friends”.

Apparently the Nairobi Central Business District Stakeholders’ Forum (surely a title put together by a committee?) has sent a memo to the Ministry of Trade accusing Chinese businesspeople of being ‘illegally in the country’ and ‘offering unfair competition’ by ‘importing merchandise at factory prices while concurrently doing the wholesale and retailing’.

The ‘Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry National Chairman, Laban Onditi, was also quoted in the same report complaining about ‘the practice of Chinese merchandising in Kenya’ which ‘contradicted the business protocol and regulations’ between the two countries. “According to the law, the Chinese should only trade as exporters but not importers”, he said.


The Standard’s ‘Point Blank’ column last Thursday 6, brought some balance to the debate about Kenya and Africa’s developing relationship with China and the furor over South Africa’s refusal to give the Dalai Lama a visa to enter the country. ‘Will Africa ever have its own mind, or will it remain a marionette – ever dancing to the tune of whoever pays it?’ it asked. ‘Leaders should stand up’, Njoroge Kinuthia’s column continued, ‘and tell China we are intelligent enough to choose our friends. China has no business telling us who we should befriend or not’.

It was a good point well made but the truth is China does have business telling us whom to befriend: lots of business and it’s increasingly in Africa.

As another reviewer of ‘When China met Africa’ wrote, ‘We all know a bit about what’s happening in Africa as the Chinese become the brave neo-colonialists, pouring money and expertise in and taking a great deal of influence (and raw materials) out.’

The Forum would add two concluding points to these deliberations.

First, it is not a question of going with China, or the US, or the European Union, or anyone else, or at least it shouldn’t be. Kenya would be best to enter into partnership with countries or regional groupings on the basis of equality. If we do not, Kenya will once again be exploited by, and dependant on others.

Second, for all the attractions of doing business with China we should remember one thing before we sell our souls to the dragon. For all the failings of ‘the West’ and their history of policies based on mixed motives, the USA, Britain, the European Union and the Scandinavian countries want to see Kenya become a fully democratic, just and fair country based on the rule of law. China wants our resources and couldn’t give a damn about our politics unless we allow the Dalai Lama to visit.

There’s a lot of water to flow under this particular bridge. Let’s leave the last word (except for your comments) to Walter Lipmann, once the doyen of political commentators in the United States (he died in 1974) and twice time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. He was asked in an interview what was the worst thing he could imagine. He replied after some thought, “China on the loose.”

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