China needs to soften its power, re­spect hosts to suc­ceed in Africa

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - LETTERS -

There has been in­tense de­bate in the past decade over whether China is the new colonis­ing power in Africa. And whereas that — at least in the fash­ion that fol­lowed the Ber­lin Con­fer­ence of 1884, herald­ing the Scram­ble for Africa — may be a long shot, pro­po­nents of this view have the balance of trade to an­chor their ar­gu­ment in.

Ac­cord­ing to China’s Min­istry of Com­merce (Mof­com), the trade peaked to $170 bil­lion last year with the sur­plus, pre­dictably, in China’s favour by $19.5 bil­lion. One may ar­gue that this is not too bad, given the state of the Chi­nese econ­omy and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion.

In Kenya, things weren’t, how­ever, as rosy! Kenya Na­tional Bu­reau of Sta­tis­tics (KNBS) data shows that we im­ported Sh390 bil­lion worth of Chi­nese goods last year but sold to the Far

East gi­ant goods val­ued at Sh10 bil­lion.

But even as Africa strug­gles to balance trade with China, with its mas­sive loans that come with the con­di­tion that we must buy from them, an­other key is­sue is emerg­ing: Im­age.

Fo­cus is slowly shift­ing from what trade China is do­ing with Africa to how it is done. Un­for­tu­nately, China ap­pears to be read­ing from the same bad script as the Euro­pean pow­ers over a cen­tury ago: The ‘bar­rel-ofa-gun ap­proach. Our fore­fa­thers ex­pe­ri­enced mas­sive vi­o­lence, as the colo­nial­ists sought to beat their “back­ward ways” into sub­mis­sion to “civilised and su­pe­rior ways of the West”, along the “small mat­ter” of al­lo­cat­ing them­selves land, labour and taxes!

In sim­i­lar fash­ion, al­beit on a less scale, cases have been re­ported of Chi­nese firms mis­treat­ing their African hosts. The less ob­vi­ous dom­i­neer­ing prac­tice has been the nam­ing and brand­ing of Chi­nese-built or -fi­nanced fa­cil­i­ties in such bold Chi­nese sig­nage that Em­peror Qin Shi­huang would mis­take us for one of his prov­inces.

Win­ning hearts is a daunt­ing task. China needs to em­ploy more soft power to ad­vance its in­ter­ests in Africa sus­tain­ably and with­out back­lash. ‘Soft power’ is win­ning in­flu­ence abroad by per­sua­sion and ap­peal rather than brute force, threats, mil­i­tary mus­cle or co­er­cion.

Heav­ily branded projects in bold red with ti­tles in Chi­nese are likely to earn the man­agers praise from Bei­jing, but they are less likely to earn their firms and gov­ern­ment favours in Africa. Worse, they are likely to build re­sent­ment of the Red Dragon and ground long-held sus­pi­cion that China is in­tent on tak­ing over the con­ti­nent.

It would ac­tu­ally win China far more hearts in Kenya, for in­stance, if their projects were la­belled in Kiswahili with a small red flag on the side, with the words ‘Ku­toka Watu wa China, Kwa Marafiki Wetu Wak­enya’ (From the peo­ple of China, to our Kenyan friends).

KAARA WAINAINA, com­mu­ni­ca­tion

and cul­ture con­sul­tant, Nairobi.

Work­ers of a Chi­nese con­trac­tor lay the track for the stan­dard gauge rail­way in Narok County on Au­gust 1. The SGR project is be­ing un­der­taken by China.

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