Nairobi: China is a hungry beast. It must be fed. The question is – by whom? There’s another question – has China become a vampire-empire? If so, who are its vassals? I am not asking these questions because I “hate” China. I don’t. In fact, I had a lovely official visit to Beijing last year. I was treated like a “king”. So, I have no personal “beef” with China. But I do have many troubling questions about China’s relationship with Africa, and specifically with Kenya.
I know the Kibaki administration is fond of saying it’s “looking East.” But is Mr Kibaki “looking East” with his eyes wide open?
Or is he reproducing another repressive, unequal and exploitative relationship? Methinks I know.
Let’s be clear – relationships between states aren’t love affairs. States make hard-nosed, calculating, and cold decisions when dealing with counterparts. Nothing is sentimental. Not even when they say it is. Each state is out to protect both its “hard” and “soft” interests. That means taking advantage of the “other guy”.
It means coming “out ahead” in the relationship. Whether it’s culture, business, diplomacy, military, and education – the name of the game is the same. Beat the other guy, but make it “feel” and “sound” mutually beneficial.
Exercise “soft power”. Brutal empires choke the life out of their “colonies,” as the European West” did to the “Rest”. “Benign” empires “believe” in “sovereign equality” and “mutual respect”. Is China benign?
I don’t want to belabour European and American sins in Africa. They are well known: Think slavery, colonialism, and support for rapacious cold war despots – and you get my point. But does that make China virtuous?
I don’t think so. It’s OK for Mr Kibaki to play the “splitist” – by which I mean “splitting” the West from the East to get the best deal from each. But is he doing that? Or is he exchanging a vampire for the dragon? Have Kenyans had a national conversation about “looking East?”
Have they been told what “looking East” actually means? Does it mean breaking longstanding cultural, economic and military ties with the West? Does it mean wedding two competing spouses?
Why am I wary about China? Let me be honest – I just don’t really understand China’s global ambitions. Does China seek to become the pre-eminent global power? Does it want to replace the United States? If so, what kind of a “global steward” would China be? Would it champion any values in the world? If so, which ones?
Would China support democracy, human rights, economic justice, and open societies? Would it coddle dictators – the way it’s done with the brutally kleptocratic regime of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe? Would China continue supporting genocidal regimes like President Omar Al-Bashir’s Sudan?
China’s ravenous appetite for raw materials and energy is so great that it doesn’t think anything else matters.
There’s more. If something is too good, it probably is. That’s why I think Kenyans should look twice at “sweet” Chinese deals. There’s a blueprint to Chinese “deals” with developing countries. The deals are almost exclusively in the energy and natural resources sectors. In Zambia, it was copper. In Sudan, it’s oil. In Kenya, it’s energy.
Usually, the deals are structured to give the Chinese largely a free hand in exploiting natural resources – for what looks like an eternity – in exchange for infrastructure projects like roads and dams. African countries give the Chinese “eternal” concessions in exchange for what seems like “cheap” or attractive “grants” for infrastructure. Don’t pay in cash – pay me in “eternal access” to natural resources.
The problem with these deals is their opacity. The public has no idea that it’s being mortgaged to Beijing. All they know is that they’ve got a gleaming new building, or a superhighway without paying a dime in cash.
Is this shrewd business on the part of the Kenya Government? Are the new infrastructure projects worth all the coal in Kitui, my native soil? Are the people in Kitui aware that their future has been mortgaged to the Chinese? Or the Indians? Or the Brazilians? Perhaps the South Africans – the so-called BRICS.
Is Parliament aware that these deals are being struck? If so, what is it doing about it? Who is watching over the future of our children?
Let’s ask the question – could China recolonise Africa through its “easy money” to African regimes? Former South African President Thabo Mbeki thought so, and openly said it.
The danger exists that China will do to Africa what the West did several hundred years ago. That is exploiting the continent to become a superpower and keep its boot on Africa’s neck. That’s why Africans must be vigilant and scrutinise every deal that the Chinese make with African states.
This is a challenge to Kenya’s civil society – wake up and audit Sino-Kenyan relations. Don’t be lured to sleep by the facade of a South-South relationship. China is in the South, but it might as well be in the North.
The discovery of large deposits of coal in Kitui and oil in Turkana county and other parts of Kenya can only further whet the Chinese appetite. I get that. Nor do I oppose agreements with the Chinese to exploit these resources and invest in Kenya. Kenya can use Chinese expertise.
But the Kenya Government should not be allowed to conclude such agreements in darkness. The new constitution doesn’t permit covert agreements. But laws don’t enforce themselves. That’s why the institutions of accountability – the legislature, the courts, civil society, and the press – must be vigilant.
We should not mortgage Kenya to China.
- Makau Mutua is Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of the KHRC.