Chinese influence and soft power in Kenya

China Africa

One can hear ‘ni hao’ and ‘xie xie’ everywhere in Nairobi, Kenya. While it may appear to be a surface level comment made in passing on its face, the remark actually demonstrates the profound success and penetration of Chinese influence in Kenya more widely, even reaching to the levels of ordinary Kenyan citizens such as 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 concerning, including media, governance, and even archaeology.

For example, when it comes to media in Kenya, China is ever-present. There is a partnership between the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) and the Chinese government, wherein senior KBC reporters are taken on trips to China to then report favorably on China. This tactic is reminiscent of Beijing’s methods in the small Asian country of Nepal and indicates a wider international trend that spans continents, where China sponsors journalists to visit the country in return for preferential treatment in news content that they then disseminate upon return to their home nation. Tens of thousands of Kenyans are going on such trips as the CCP offers scholarships for budding journalists and opportunities for young people to go on extended tours of China, the details and content of which remain unclear. People feel that China is extremely safe and also cheaper than the West, and as long as political conversations are avoided, then life there is just fine.

People are made to believe that CCP’s intention with its activities in Kenya is to counter the negative view of China as imposed by the United States, for example. China simply wants to combat this and share their side of the story. China’s goal is just to have people understand what it is all about, not necessarily to influence. As most Kenyan journalists are Western-trained, China just wants its say in telling the global story with a Chinese lens. There is also a large Xinhua bureau, whose coming about is shrouded in hidden details. Recently, 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 learning Mandarin as it is a popular language to learn right now for upwards progression.

Chinatowns have been popping up all over Africa across the last two decades. One fascinating anecdote was that the Chinese come to rural villages in Kenya with trucks full of slot machines that they set up and then collect in the evening. This practice is banned in Kenya unless in a licensed casino, and thus the story demonstrates the sheer level of penetration the Chinese have managed to attain within Kenya.

China has also been quietly investing in technological infrastructure in Kenya’s rural areas throughout the past twenty years. The Chinese Star Times set-top boxes, are proliferating in rural areas as they are cheap and affordable to most people. There are countless Star Times ads and shops in rural parts of Kenya during the drive between Diani, Mombasa, and Tsavo National Park. The idea is that the CCP wants Chinese culture to enter all homes in Kenya; the channels loaded on the boxes include CGTN and even Chinese cultural content like kung fu movies. China is also making more films set in Africa as of late.

China is also involved in Lamu, which is on the northern coast of Kenya. This is the site where the legendary Chinese voyager Zheng He landed in Africa many centuries ago. Chinese archaeological teams have been involved in digs and excavations in this area for years. The Chinese government even attempted to identify local descendants of Zheng from Lamu, taught them Chinese, gave them Chinese names, and took them to China as part of what can be called one giant propaganda tour and exercise.

The CCP even carried out genetic testing of those descendants, the results of which were never made public. This is all part of a wider trend wherein the CCP is actively engaged in archaeological projects around the world in order to boost their narrative of China being at the center of the so-called new Silk Road and highlighting historical links between Beijing and potential investment partners.

China’s disinterest in democracy has also led to CCP principles influencing African methods of governance. The idea China is promoting in Kenya and the continent at large is that democracy does not equal to success. The CCP says it promotes stability, rather than necessarily outright speaking out against democracy itself; instead, China favors growth and prosperity for all, as Beijing likes to put it. China’s narrative is also that leadership is not a popularity contest and that inefficient systems end up producing clowns like Donald Trump. These ideas are actively being propagated in institutions like the CCP-sponsored party school in Tanzania.

The target audience of the school is the ruling political elites of Tanzania, and the school’s existence is tied to the history of Tanzania’s liberation movement and China’s role within that. The concern is that these schools are promoting one-party rule in the style of the CCP itself, and pushing a narrative that economic development requires one strong party and that democracy can come later, if at all. China’s dismissal of democracy is a powerful statement when it comes 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 provide evidence to China’s claim.

Africans are asking themselves whether democratic institutions are actually delivering democratic outcomes, and whether their leaders are actually representing the interests of their citizens. Kenyan government should be concerned that that a high level of Chinese influence could erode transparency in Kenya and neighboring African countries and thus pave the way for longer term authoritarianism down the road.

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