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March 29, 2015

China-Africa in the news: ‘Racist’ Nairobi restaurant, China’s defence minister in Zimbabwe and Namibia, Museveni and Lungu in Beijing, Kenya’s growing debt

A Chinese man in Ghana. The influx of Chinese people to Africa is bound to offend cultural sensitivities, as the Kenya restaurant incident shows.  Photo: oneVillage Initiative (Wikimedia Commons)

A Chinese man in Ghana. The influx of Chinese people to Africa is bound to offend cultural sensitivities, as the Kenya restaurant incident shows. Photo: oneVillage Initiative (Wikimedia Commons)

"The time for Africans is over," a guard told a couple of prospective patrons. Only, these were not just any other patrons but journalists. African journalists, in Kenya - an African country - turned away by an African guard at a Chinese restaurant. Only Chinese patrons, taxi drivers, or Africans accompanied by Chinese, European and Indian patrons were eligible to enter the restaurant after 5 PM, the journalists were told. The journalists returned to their newsroom and filed their story, which was quickly picked up by news outlets across the globe. The restaurant has since been closed down, and its owners charged for running it without a licence.

Interestingly, the "illegal" restaurant had received powerful customers before. A flamboyant member of Kenya's Senate representing the capital, Nairobi, and a former cabinet minister are said to be regular customers and friends of the owners. The two were the only Africans admitted after 5pm, according to staff at the restaurant. Their friendship with the owners meant they did not pose a security risk to other patrons, which was the reason given for the exclusion of the rest. The restaurant managers said they had introduced the policy "after a gang posing as patrons robbed the establishment and its clients" in 2014.

The incident underscores the growing presence of China in Africa and the challenges the relationship comes with. Many Chinese newcomers to Africa have little knowledge about the continent, according to one perspective, coming with "prejudice and stereotypes," and also "a sense of entitlement." It is an opinion seemingly shared by a Chinese entrepreneur in Africa, who says "this was a poorly handled incident that reveals the lack of experience of many Chinese businesses and individuals working abroad, particularly in Africa." (The link is in Mandarin: the summary was provided by Alexander Rounds.)

China’s Defence Minister visits Zimbabwe and Namibia. Chang Wanquan was in the two countries at the invitation of their defence ministers, according to China Military Online. The destinations of the minister are, however, not that random when you consider reports that China is planning to build a naval base at Walvis Bay, Namibia.

Conversely, the Ugandan and Zambian Presidents are in Beijing. President Yoweri Museveni and his Zambian counterpart, Edgar Lungu, were "the only African leaders among 15 heads of state and government invited to attend the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) annual conference 2015." Mr Lungu’s speech at the summit called on Asia to help Africa move to middle-income status over the next 50 years, while the Ugandan leader spoke about integration efforts in East Africa. China’s president, on the other hand, spoke of a new order where China – buoyed by its immense growth – is a driver of development and integration in Asia and the world.

Guess who is the biggest Asian funder of projects in Africa? China might be Africa’s biggest trading partner after overtaking the US in 2009, but the Japanese provide the most financing for projects on the continent. Japanese project financing in Africa actually outstrips China’s by a factor of three. Bloomberg reports that “Japanese investors accounted for $3.5 billion of the $4.2 billion of project funds that Asian nations poured into Africa last year to improve roads, water and sanitation and build oil and gas pipelines.”

Kenya’s growing debt, especially to China. The China-Japan-Africa angle takes on a different twist in Kenya. The East African country has recently borrowed more from China to finance its large infrastructural projects and less from Japan. “Kenya owes $1.1 billion to China, nearly a third of which was stacked up over the first half of the government’s current fiscal year,” while its debts to Japan “more than halved over the six months, to $0.4 billion as at December 31 from $0.9 billion in June, a 55.6 per cent decline.” Kenya borrowed from China to finance the construction of a Standard Gauge Railway that will run from Mombasa port to the border with Uganda. A Chinese firm is constructing part of the railway.

The latest from our grant recipients. The Chinese in Zimbabwe have started several associations to help with integration, lobbying, as well as to monitor and manage the behaviour of Chinese companies. And, in Uganda, not every Chinese ‘doctor’ or ‘clinic’ is to be trusted with a few charlatans exploiting the demand for Chinese medicine in the country. However, as the report notes, there are quite a number of authentic and thriving Chinese doctors in Uganda.

We are also looking to commission a series of FOCAC-themed articles aimed at reviewing developments since the fifth FOCAC meeting in 2012. To write the articles, we are inviting Chinese and African journalists to apply for themed grants. More details here.

Raymond Mpubani, Wits China Africa Reporting Project

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