Kenyans appreciate Chinese investment and technology – but they seem to prefer the more positive approach of the US. It’s no secret that China and the US are in competition for global dominance, seeking influence over other governments and access to markets and resources.
US China Competition in Africa and China
Part of that competition takes place in Africa and in Kenya. Thankfully that competition hasn’t crossed the Rubicon and spilled into violence but the nature of modern conflict between powerful actors seldom becomes a full-blown war until only after all the other tools at the nation’s disposal have been flexed. These days that could mean politics, diplomacy, economic influence, cultural engagement or messaging campaigns.
War is the last resort and even when it does occur it can be fought through proxies and in a very controlled and constrained manner (such as Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine).
China and Russia in Africa
In Africa China scrupulously avoids involving itself in anything that vaguely resembles security: it seems to have an informal agreement with the Russians to leave security engagements on the continent to them. The Russians in turn often deliver those engagements through ‘private military companies’ – the polite modern term for mercenaries such as the notorious Wagner Group.
China focuses on the other elements of power. In Kenya, the obvious manifestation is investment, especially in infrastructure. It is impossible to miss China’s road-building effort, Lamu Port, the SGR railway that links Nairobi to Mombasa, and the new fleet of electric buses that will soon flood the streets of Nairobi.
The effort has always been accompanied by messaging to highlight China’s achievements, its partnership with the Kenyan government and the people of Kenya. The face of a recent advertising campaign for the Chinese technology firm, Tecno, was Kenya’s marathon hero, Eliud Kipchoge. That said, even his face on the posters didn’t stop people worrying about the reported intrusive software on Chinese products, since all Chinese businesses are so closely linked to the Chinese government.
Many Kenyans also worry about the cut-throat business practices of the Chinese, an obvious example being the China Square supermarket scandal in February.
However, since March China’s messaging in Kenya, via its Embassy and its journalists-for-hire in the Kenyan media, has become not just intensely pro-Chinese but also aggressively anti-US. It still pushes out reams of text highlighting China’s response to COVID (sadly undermined by the WHO declaring that China WAS responsible for COVID in January).
It publicizes its economic recovery but it doesn’t take long to find reliable international sources that raises questions about those claims. But China does, nonetheless, put a lot of effort into ‘puffing’ itself up for the Kenyan audience.
But in the past two months, almost half of the messages from Chinese sources in Kenya deliberately targets the US: the levels of gun violence and drug abuse; the alleged bombing of the Nordstream II oil pipeline in the Baltic Sea (for which there is no evidence, just a lot of conspiracy theories); and the impending collapse of the US democratic system, likely at the tiny hands of an orange-hued man with a bad hairstyle and a loose relationship with the truth.
It seems that China is worried that it may be losing its popularity in Kenya, as the so-called ‘Chinese debt trap’ looms because many of those well-publicized investments were actually loans with usurious terms applied. The US has recently been pushing its ‘soft power’ tools, including a $126 million USAID donation in February to counter the effects of climate change.
There have also been high-profile visits such as that of the First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS), Jill Biden in late February. The US Ambassador, Meg Whitman, is highly visible across a range of activities, not just in terms of business, but also the rights of women and children, enhancing the capacity of democratic institutions and securing Kenya against threats such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab.
Which seems to be resonating better with the population of Kenya? For most it would appear to be the positive, no-strings-attached, feed good and, interestingly, women-led, approach of the US.