On March 20, 2023, a new book on China-Africa ties, Zheng He’s Voyages to Africa in the 15th Century: The Maritime Silk and Porcelain Road by Li Xinfeng, will hit the shelves. The new tome comes hard on the heels of Professor Li’s earlier award-winning, China in Africa: In Zheng He’s Footsteps (January 15, 2018).
The two books shed light on the link between the voyages of the legendary Chinese diplomat and admiral, Zheng He, between 1405 and 1433 and Sino-African relations in the 21st century.
Professor Li’s thesis is clear: Kenya, also the cradle of mankind, is also the epicentre of the story of ancient China-Africa ties.
According to the legend, Zheng made seven diplomatic voyages to East Africa, including Lamu and Malindi in Kenya. One of his ships was wrecked by a storm off the coast of Pate Island, Lamu County and hit a rock before sinking to the bed of the Indian Ocean.
Kenya is home to the descendants of those Chinese explorers who survived the wreck. One of these is Mama Baraka, a 75-year-old matriarch. “Ever since I was a kid, my grandparents would tell me that our family was part Chinese and we should never forget our ancestry,” Mama Baraka recalls in a recent media interview on November 20, 2022. In 2005, Shiyu Village in Lamu’s Pate Island came to limelight when a 19-year-old Mwamaka Sharifu earned a scholarship to study medicine in China. A DNA test conducted by China proved that she was of Chinese origin.
Today, a tomb in Pate Island believed to have been built by the Chinese, a porcelain bowl in Mama Baraka’s custody as well as pieces of broken artefacts from the shipwreck, all tell the beautiful story of ancient Sino-Kenya ties.
December 2022 witnesses twin celebrations: one, the formal establishment of Kenyan independence on December 12, 1963. Two, the establishment of Sino-Kenya diplomatic ties two days later, on December 14, 1963 as China became the fourth country to open an embassy in Nairobi.
But the celebration will unfold against the backdrop of three seismic political transitions that put these ties to serious test. One is the election of William Ruto as Kenya’s President on August 9, 2022, and the birth of the ‘Hustler Nation’ and Kenya’s Fifth Republic.
Second is the re-election of President Xi Jinping as the Party’s General Secretary and topmost leader for the period 2022-2027 during the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in on October 16-22, 2022.
Third is the release by President Joe Biden’s administration of the US National Security Strategy on October 12, 2022, which defines the People’s Republic of China as the foremost challenger to America in the contest for the future of power in our world. The strategy thrusts Kenya, as an anchor state in Africa, into the vortex of superpower geopolitics.
These transitions force a relook at Kenya’s ‘Look East’ Policy that Dr Ruto’s predecessors have pursued since China, under President Deng Xiaoping, embraced the ‘market economy’ as part of its ‘Reforms and Opening Up’ policy in the 1980s.
So far, Kenya’s ‘Look East’ policy has been a ‘win-win’ in terms of collaboration. Today, China is Kenya’s largest trading partner. The total value of trade between the two countries in the 2015 -2019 hiatus stood at $18.20 billion. But trade balance is skewed heavily in China’s favour. Kenya should aggressively pursue industrialisation as remedy.
China is also the leading investor in Kenya. Today there are 106 Chinese companies investing in Kenya, with nearly 95 percent of their workforce being Kenyan. These companies created more than 50,000 jobs in 2018 alone.
China’s entry has created avenues for Kenya to diversify its external sources of development assistance. By the end of 2021, China was the leading bilateral creditor to Kenya, representing about 67 per cent of its external debt. The bulk of this assistance has funded the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) and the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor project. China’s Exim Bank has funded the completion of an oil terminal in Mombasa at a cost of USD 400 million. Kenya’s new infrastructure has spurred new investment opportunities in the construction and manufacturing sub-sectors, helping reduce its dependence on imported commodities, especially in high tech fields like cloud computing.
With no string attached, Chinese development assistance is an effective counterweight to Western aid that is often pegged to neo-liberal values. But foreign media and analysts fret that Kenya’s loans from China will increase its overall economic dependence on Chinese capital and products. The propaganda on the collateralization of Kenya’s Mombasa port looms large.
China’s development path offers invaluable lessons for Kenya. One lesson is China’s success in the eradicating extreme poverty. As dividend from its market reforms and opening up, China has lifted over 850 million of its poor out of extreme poverty. According to the World Bank, China reduced its poverty rate from 88 per cent in 1981 to 0.7 per cent by 2015. With reforms, Kenya also can also lift its 8.9 million poor from abject poverty!
The game-changer is China’s decision to invest in the youth, especially in technical and vocational training (TVET). Kenya is a very youthful nation, with 75 per cent of Kenya’s 56.622 by December 2022 being young people under 35 years. Investing in the youth holds the key to turning Kenya’s youth bulge into a blessing rather than a curse.
But as a third lesson from China, Kenya needs an extensive campaign against corruption. Corruption is a threat to economic growth, poverty eradication, sustainable development, political and social stability.
Fourth, long-term peace begets sustained growth and development. Regime stability transformed China from one of the world’s poorest countries to the second largest economy.
During the visit of China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, to Kenya in January 2022, Beijing proposed the “Peaceful Development Initiative” (PDI) in the Horn of Africa and has since appointed a special envoy for the region to galvanise consensus on politics, peace and security to underpin sustainable development.
Understandably, China’s growing interest in Kenya’s security sector has stirred unease in the West, Kenya’s traditional security partner. Finally is the need to conserve the environment.
The 18th National Congress of CPC in the late 2012 popularised the concept of ‘Ecological Civilization’ the balance between development and the environment. 59 years on, Sino-Kenya ties still bind.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser, the Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API) and Adjunct Scholar at the University of Nairobi and the National Defence University (NDU), Kenya.