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