China Under Scrutiny In Kenya’s Presidential Election

Votes are currently being tallied for Tuesday’s presidential election in Kenya, in which relations with China comprised a major campaign theme. The two main candidates, former deputy president William Ruto and former prime minister Raila Odinga, each repeatedly laid out their plans to take a stronger stance towards China, which holds a substantial portion of Kenya’s external debt. This election saga highlights the political consequences of China’s international debt crisis and China’s efforts to soften its image via local media

Kate Bartlett from VOA described Ruto’s anti-China platform that includes deporting Chinese nationals who take Kenyans’ jobs:

Deputy President William Ruto, a former chicken-seller who styles himself as a champion of the poor and calls himself the “hustler-in-chief,” has come out with a strongly anti-China platform. He’s vowed to deport Chinese nationals doing jobs he says should be reserved for Kenyans and has also promised to make public government contracts with Beijing.

At an economic forum in June, Ruto said, “Chinese nationals are roasting maize and selling mobile phones. We will deport all of them,” Agence France-Presse reported.

[…] Ruto said he would cut government borrowing and promised to make public opaque contracts with China — something some Kenyan activists have even gone to court over.

[…] “Kenya is currently experiencing a lot of economic difficulties and there’s been this narrative about the role of China, especially in regard to this debt trap narrative,” [Kenyan independent analyst and China specialist Adhere Cavince] told VOA. “Politicians leverage anything they can blame, and I think for the deputy president, China has become a very easy target.” [Source]

As Andres Schipani reported for The Financial Times, while Odinga’s rhetoric on China is less aggressive than Ruto’s, he nonetheless intends to renegotiate Chinese loans:

Odinga, who is making his fifth attempt to be elected president, has focused on Chinese loans to Kenya, which have risen from $4.1bn to $6.4bn over the past five years, according to official numbers.

[…] Odinga said he intended to renegotiate loans with some creditors, including China, if he won. Some loans could be converted so they had longer repayment periods and lower interest rates to release money for new development projects, he suggested.

[…] “If the Chinese offer better terms and also better prices for the goods and services that we want, we will continue to deal with the Chinese,” he said. “We don’t see that China is a threat.” [Source]

The International Monetary Fund announced this year that Kenya is at high risk of debt distress. China is Kenya’s bilateral creditor with 67% of its bilateral debt, though it holds only 19 percent of Kenya’s total external debt, which also includes multilateral and commercial debt. By contrast, the World Bank is owed over 27 percent of Kenya’s external debt. However, Kenya’s external debt has steadily increased since 2000 and began rising sharply in 2014, the year after incumbent president Uhuru Kenyatta took office. From 2013-2019, Kenya took out over $7.7 billion in Chinese loans, out of a total of $9.3 billion in Chinese loans acquired since 2000, according to Boston University’s Global Development Policy Center.

Much of these loans were spent on mega-infrastructure projects that Kenyatta hopes will cement his legacy. He inaugurated some of them as recently as last week, including a dam and expressway worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But many of these projects were also tainted by corruption, a fact which was not lost on the public. One such project is Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway, financed by China and built at a cost of $4.7 billion. Abdi Latif Dahir from The New York Times described how Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway has come to embody the greed of the political elite and symbolize the election’s negative focus on China:

Both leading candidates in the campaign to pick Mr. Kenyatta’s successor — William Ruto and Raila Odinga — have seized on the railway’s troubles, promising to reassess its operations, while also trying to distance themselves from the project.

[…] The railway represents the height of the borrowing and looting spree that has plagued Mr. Kenyatta’s government since it took office in 2013, economists, analysts and government officials said in interviews. His administration, they said, has saddled the country with large-scale infrastructure projects that are not financially viable, largely benefit the wealthy and divert investments from education and health care. In the past nine years, Kenya’s public debt has surged almost fivefold.

“The standard gauge railway is the jewel in the crown of corruption in Kenya,” John Githongo, a former anti-corruption czar, said. “That’s a sad legacy of the current regime.”

[…] Over the years, activists and opposition figures have accused senior politicians of inflating costs and profiting from the railway. [Source]

An Afrobarometer poll in November of last year revealed that the Kenyan public was acutely and exceptionally aware of these debt issues and their connection to China. Among African countries surveyed, Kenya had the highest level of public awareness (74 percent) about Chinese loans to its government, and the highest percentage of population (92 percent) who believed that their government had borrowed too much from China. Perhaps as a result, the poll showed that Kenyans’ perceived positive influence of China had dropped 11 percentage points over the previous five years. As Afrobarometer CEO Joseph Asunka discussed with the China in Africa Podcast this week, Chinese influence on the continent (and in Kenya in particular) is likely to diminish as China pulls back on massive infrastructure investments and continues to ignore toxic incidents of harmful interpersonal relations between Chinese and African citizens, notably in the extractive sectors. 

The Chinese government is itself well aware of its deteriorating image in Kenya and has recently worked to polish its image via local media. In early July, almost every major Kenyan newspaper published a column by the Chinese ambassador refuting debt-trap accusations against China (which have also been heavily critiqued by less partial sources). Two weeks ago, the Kenyan Broadcasting Organization (KBC) ran a CGTN article advertising a “Great to Meet You” China-Africa youth video contest, hosted by China Media Group and Zhejiang University. The competition is an attempt to showcase “moving moments of cross-cultural friendship,” “promote the sustainable development of the China-Africa friendship,” and “provide a platform for Chinese and African short video creators to showcase the ‘youthful and positive energy’ of their peers and their potential to become an important force in building a China-Africa community with a shared future in the new era.” 

Last week, local Kenyan outlet Capital News shared another CGTN article aimed at burnishing China’s image. The article appeared to be a summary of a video series titled “My Account of China,” specifically episode 17, “China and Africa: Win-Win Cooperation.” The South African host, narrating her experience visiting various Chinese companies in South Africa, heaps praise on China’s engagement: “The Chinese automaker has built a solid reputation, continuously adapting to and meeting local needs.” Describing one area where a Chinese manufacturer set up a plant, the host opines, “The once gloomy picture is countered by a mood of optimism among residents who are now seeing more opportunities.” As the article frames it, these successful outcomes are implicitly credited to Xi Jinping, who “emphasized treating African people with sincerity and delivering real outcomes in cooperation.” 

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