The sheen is coming off China’s engagement in Kenya.
As you whizz past the traffic jams on Mombasa Road on the Nairobi Expressway and then board the high-speed SGR rail link to the coast you would not be unusual in thanking China for its role in the modernisation of Kenya’s infrastructure. You may even be moved to post something on social media to that effect on your Huawei smartphone.
But these days your positive sentiment may not be as popular as it once would have been and instead of a ‘thumbs up’ you may get a different ‘extended finger’ emoji.
China Positive and Negative
Increasingly sentiment about China amongst Kenyans is less about simple appreciation of the undeniable contribution that has been made in terms of infrastructure and investment. Recent coverage of China in the Kenyan media is equally split between positive and negative coverage.
The ‘Debt Trap’
The previous enthusiasm is now tempered by concerns that the so-called ‘debt trap’ China has deployed elsewhere is now being used in Kenya.
Kenya paid $781 million in 2022 to China to service its debts. The current rate for servicing the debt is 35% of the amount loaned, a usurious level of interest. It does not take much – another pandemic, for example, or perhaps something less obvious and more gradual like the effects of climate change – to effectively buckle an economy. Kenya’s economy is more robust than most on the continent, but it remains vulnerable to the unexpected.
In other countries the debt-trap can snap shut quickly. Singapore, for instance, lost control of an entire port to a Chinese government owned company. Imagine Mombasa Port, and all the revenue that comes from it for the city and for the country, becoming Chinese property.
The population have other concerns about China’s engagement in Kenya. Some are irked by the imperious way Beijing behaves. Others are concerned by the less than transparent way the Chinese government and Chinese businesses operates (they are often interchangeable), which many feel encourages corruption.
One reason why China’s involvement in Kenya remains popular with half the population is that its contribution is tangible: you can see a road or a train. The debt-trap, an imperious attitude or underhand dealings are higher level abstracts that the average citizen will not be familiar with in their daily life.
China’s Media Offensive
Equally, China puts a lot of effort into publicising its activities in Kenya. The Chinese Ambassador to Kenya, Zhou Pingian, is well known and is a perfect example of China’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ style of diplomacy. It is an approach that is pro-active, delivered in quantity and aggressive in response to criticism.
It also has an extensive media operation ranging from the clearly attributed Chinese media organs like CCTV and Xinhua to sympathetic local voices. Capital Media Group, for example, is consistently favourable to China, and its owner and pro-Beijing advocate, Chris Kirubi, is a voluble proponent for Chinese involvement in Kenya.
That said, a significant shift in the nature of China’s engagement in Kenya, such as an exploitative seizure of Mombasa Port, is not likely to be palatable to the population, no matter how many soundbites and supporters Beijing might deploy in its defence.