Why China’s ‘soft power’ approach appeals to Kenya

President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at State House in Nairobi May 10, 2014 after addressing journalists. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

What you need to know:

  • But the Chinese premier, a trained economist and one of the key figures behind Beijing’s economic policy, has come to Nairobi waving the Chinese dream and ebullient about a shared future with Kenya, and Africa at large.
  • Today the movers and shakers in Nairobi are enchanting “a journey of friendship and co-operation” with China, and their Chinese counterparts envisioning “a China-Kenya voyage to a shared vision”.

It is tempting to view Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s trip to Nairobi as the long-awaited “white smoke” confirming East Africa’s economic powerhouse as a pivotal state in the African strategy of China, now widely touted by some pundits as the “second superpower”.

But the Chinese premier, a trained economist and one of the key figures behind Beijing’s economic policy, has come to Nairobi waving the Chinese dream and ebullient about a shared future with Kenya, and Africa at large.

In many ways, Li’s visit has familiar echoes to the late premier Zhou Enlai’s tour of 10 African countries between December 1963 and January 1964, which spotlighted peaceful coexistence and development co-operation as the core pillars of China’s relations with a newly decolonised Africa.

On Monday, at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Li envisioned a future when all African capitals would be connected by high-speed rail. He rightly reckoned that China’s experience and technology, which introduced a speed rail in 2007 and is now ferrying over 1.33 million riders between its cities daily, could “help make this dream come true”.

Today the movers and shakers in Nairobi are enchanting “a journey of friendship and co-operation” with China, and their Chinese counterparts envisioning “a China-Kenya voyage to a shared vision”.

But the Chinese and Kenyan dreams have not always matched. China opened an embassy in the new Republic on December 14, 1963. But Beijing scaled down its diplomatic relation with Kenya to chargé d’affaires level after 1965, when Kenya adopted Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism that influenced a “Look West” policy and a capitalist path of development. And the Chinese dream was itself still mired in the post-1949 communist revolution politics.

Four decades later, the two dreams have been fine-tuned to fit the bill for a market-oriented post-Cold War global economy. The Chinese Dream is no longer about ideologies.

It is about mundane issues of “national rejuvenation, improvement of people’s livelihoods, prosperity, construction of a better society and military strengthening”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has defined the dream as having “two 100-year goals”. The first is to achieve a moderately prosperous society by 2021 when the Communist Party of China marks its 100th anniversary; the second is to build an affluent, strong and harmonious socialist modern country by 2049 at the 100th anniversary of new China.

Like Africa, China was once the Cinderella of the world, looked down upon by the West. But today Beijing, whose economy could expand by 8.9 per cent this year, is firmly on course to outrank America as the world’s biggest economy in 2016.

The shared dream is not limited to the corridors of power. A 2013 survey showed that China is rapidly replacing the US and Britain as the top source of inspiration for many Kenyans, with 34 per cent of them looking up to Beijing as a role model and destination for business opportunities, technology and infrastructure development.

However, China’s rise is intricately linked to the success of Africa, now a new source of strategic natural resources like oil and markets for Beijing. Africa fortunes, too, are changing for the better.


In May 2000, it was derided in the cover page of The Economist as a The hopeless continent. But in the last two years, the same magazine has changed tune to Africa rising.

Africa, too, is fine tuning its dream. Last year, riding the crest of revitalised continental unity, a tech boom, economic growth averaging six per cent for more than a decade amid a meltdown in Europe, Africa charted its own afro-centric future, adopting Agenda 2063 on Pan-Africanism and African Renaissance.

In the same vein, Kenya dreamt of becoming a middle-income nation by 2030. But the new Jubilee government of President Uhuru Kenyatta has set itself the goal of realising Kenya’s Vision 2030 goals earlier by a decade (2020).

To leverage the Kenyan dream, experts crafted a “Look-East Policy” strategy in the 2005-2007 hiatus to forge closer co-operation with emerging economic powerhouses, particularly China.

On its part, China is projecting itself as a gentle giant, tapping into soft power – the ability to get what you want through attraction and persuasion rather than coercion – to blunt an ideological offensive that depicts it as a neo-imperial power scrambling for Africa’s wealth of natural resources and energy.
China’s soft power is drawing from the deep wellspring of its 5,000-year history to shake off the idea of a new scramble and provide scientific proof of the long roots of equitable Sino-Africa relations.

In Kenya, China has funded a $2.4 million project at the Coast led by Peking University Prof Qin Daxu, and involving Kenyan archaeologists to excavate new evidence to build on titbits of information on Chinese seafarers who came and settled there some 600 years ago.

China is also using a variant of soft power known as “people-to-people” diplomacy involving non-governmental organisations such as the Chinese People’s Association on Peace and Disarmament to consolidate Sino-Africa relations.

Nairobi hosted the first China-Africa People’s Forum two years ago, which explored a new model for NGO co-operation between China and African countries.

More concretely, co-operation in education is a key pillar of China’s soft power approach. At any one year since 1982, there are no less than 200 Kenyan students on Chinese government scholarships pursuing higher education in Chinese universities.

Further, more than 1,800 Kenyan officials, technicians and other staff have taken part in training programmes in China in a wide spectrum of fields since 2006.

At home, the Confucius Institutes at the University of Nairobi and Egerton and Kenyatta universities have enabled Kenyans to learn Mandarin and understand Chinese culture.

China’s soft power is also extended to charity. During the 2011 famine, Kenya’s worst in 60 years, the Chinese government provided assorted assistance worth Sh1.8 billion.

Chinese experts have provided houses to resettle IDPs, donated anti-malaria medicines and built health facilities.

Finally, as a natural home of wildlife, Kenya is key to China’s soft power strategy to counter a vicious public relations blitz by wildlife lobbies over accusations that, as the world’s most populous nation with a strong appetite for elephant tusks, it is still driving the world ivory market and has become the “elephant graveyard”.

In his African tour, Premier Li has pledged $100 million in aid of wildlife-protection projects in Africa. In Kenya, Chinese officials have recently concluded discussions on providing wildlife protection equipment to the government. The final agreement is to be signed between the National Treasury and China’s Ministry of Commerce.

The Kenya-China détente is also anchored on mutual political interests at the regional and international levels. Kenya has supported Beijing’s One-China policy while China has backed Kenya’s position on the trials at the International Criminal Court.

In November, last year, China voted in favour of a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling for the deferral of Kenyan cases.

The Kenya-China co-operation is beginning to pay off, and handsomely. One area where gains are recorded is tourism. In 2004, Beijing granted Kenya approved destination status for outbound tourist groups.

Now, China is the second largest tourist source for Kenya in Asia. More than 40,000 Chinese tourists visited Kenya last year, and the Kenya Tourist Board estimates that more than 100,000 Chinese will holiday here by 2016.

The second area is economic and trade co-operation. The China Customs statistics puts the volume of bilateral trade between the two countries at $2.8 billion (Sh240.8bn) in 2012, up from $2.4bn (Sh206.4bn) in 2011. China has emerged as Kenya’s largest trading partner after Uganda.

But the Kenya-China trade relation is skewed in favour of China which exports to Kenya high-value products such as machinery, electronics, vehicles and spare parts, and imports largely unprocessed goods such as leather and skins, fish, tea and coffee.

The third area is China’s investment flows to Kenya. Up to last year, Chinese direct investment to Kenya was $537 million (Sh46bn), which compares favourably with China’s direct investment in Africa which stood at $3.5 billion (Sh301bn). Today, an estimated 50 Chinese companies are working on about 80 projects in Kenya with a value of $2 billion (Sh172bn).

The fourth area is financing. China has become Kenya’s leading source of concessional loans and preferential export buyer’s credit to support infrastructure and social development projects. Saliently, Chinese loans will fund Jubilee’s flagship project, the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway construction and the Nairobi Greenfield international airport projects, likely to fuel Kenya’s future economic takeoff.

Beijing has also taken a greater role in security affairs. It has recently extended its cooperation with Kenya to the military arena in what appears to be a desire to secure its interests.

But the future of China-Kenya relations will increasingly turn on the pivot of natural resources following recent discoveries of huge crude oil deposits.

Prof Kagwanja is the Chief Executive of the Africa Policy Institute. This article draws from the Institute’s Citizen Security Project